When you ignite the Large Hadron Collider and use its globally supreme power to bring down a few ordinary particles together, not only can you create an amazing 13 teraelectronvolt collision force; you could also discover that you have produced a subatomic particle whose unusual oscillation could completely violate the laws of physics.
It’s called muon. And on Wednesday, researchers from the National Fermi Acceleration Laboratory sent shock waves through the world of particle physics when they discovered that this inconspicuous speck of quantum curious existence could illuminate the very structure of the universe in a way we haven’t seen sincealmost ten years ago.
With 207 times the size of electrons, muon-like magnets decay radioactively in 2.2 millionths of a second, making them incredible candidates for the discovery of explosive physics, according to a richly published New York Times story from Wednesday. In the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which explains how the elementary particles of the universe interact, we have very strict calculations of how muons should move.
But during experiments in Fermi’s laboratory, the researchers noticed that the muons were nodding strangely. So strange that the fluctuation routinely opposes the hyper-specific measurements in the world and goes against the standard model. They seem to be affected by what physicists say may be forces beyond those currently known.
“This amount we measure reflects the interaction of muons with everything else in space,” Renee Fatemi, a physicist at the University of Kentucky, told the release. “This is strong evidence that muon is sensitive to something that is not in our best theory.”
In quantum physics, the theory holds that particles can appear suddenly and affect the item they interact with before they disappear again. Researchers working on muons say small variations in mution nodding can be attributed to the influence of a potential host of these “virtual particles”.
Although the findings followed in the footsteps of similar experiments in 2013 and 2018, the latest results still require more verification. The researchers note that the chances of muon fluctuating as a statistical coincidence are around one in 40,000 – which, in scientific discourse, equates to a confidence level of “4.1 sigma”. Physicists are usually not satisfied until the level of reliability reaches 5 sigma.
In the meantime, however, you can find out more about the amazing muons by watching Fermilab’s usual video explainer adapted for ordinary people.