It’s called a muon. And on Wednesday, scientists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory sent shock waves through the world of particle physics when they found that this modest spot of quantum-curious existence could illuminate the very matter of the universe in a way we have not seen sincealmost ten years ago.
At 207 times larger than electrons, magnetic-like muons decay radioactively at 2.2 millionths of a second, making them unlikely candidates for an explosive physics discovery, according to a richly reported New York Times story on 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 at the Fermi Lab, researchers noticed that the muons staggered strangely. So strange that the wobblers routinely defy the world’s most hyperspecific measurements and go against the standard model. They appear to be influenced by what physicists say may be forces outside of those currently known.
“This amount we measure reflects the interaction between the muon and everything else in the universe,” Renee Fatemi, a physicist at the University of Kentucky, said in a release. “This is strong evidence that the muon is sensitive to something that is not in our best theory.”
In quantum physics, a theory maintains that particles can suddenly appear and affect an element they interact with before disappearing again. Researchers working on muons say the small variations in the muons’ wobbles can be attributed to the influence of a potential host of these “virtual particles”.
Although the results follow in the footsteps of similar experiments in 2013 and 2018, recent results still require more control. The researchers note that the chances of the muon’s wobbling being a statistical fluke are around one in 40,000 – which in science talks equates to a confidence level of “4.1 sigma.” Physicists are usually not satisfied until the confidence level reaches 5 sigma.
In the meantime, though, you can find out more about the mind-blowing muons by checking out Fermilab’s regular folk music-friendly video explainer.