According to The New York Times, researchers at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois have discovered new evidence that a subatomic particle known as a muon does not obey the known laws of physics.
Muons are similar to electrons, but they are 207 times more massive. They also tend to decay extremely quickly into electrons and super-light particles called neutrinos.
The team discovered that when muons were exposed to a strong magnetic field by being sent around a 46-foot magnetized ring at Fermilab, they wobbled in completely unexpected ways, surprising the researchers.
These motions can usually be measured and predicted in extreme detail, according to the Standard Model, which was developed in the second half of the twentieth century as the fundamental theory of how particles interact.
The field of quantum physics has reached a turning point. The findings obtained at Fermilab could rewrite the way we understand the fundamental laws governing physics, at least as we know them today, if they are confirmed.
“This quantity we measure reflects the interactions of the muon with everything else in the universe,” Renee Fatemi, a physicist at the University of Kentucky and manager of the experiment, said in an official statement. “But when the theorists calculate the same quantity, using all of the known forces and particles in the Standard Model, we don’t get the same answer.”
“This is strong evidence that the muon is sensitive to something that is not in our best theory,” Fatemi added.
That leaves the big question: what force of nature is actually causing the muon to wobble? Researchers speculate that there may be undiscovered sources of matter and energy that aren’t described by the Standard Model — in other words, a fifth fundamental force of nature that can be applied to gravity, electromagnetism, and strong and weak nuclei interactions.
The new experiments, laid out in a series of papers submitted to the journal Physical Review Letters, confirm previous results found during experiments at the Brookhaven National Laboratory back in 2001.
“After the 20 years that have passed since the Brookhaven experiment ended, it is so gratifying to finally be resolving this mystery,” Fermilab scientist Chris Polly, who worked on both experiments, said in the statement.
There’s still the chance that Fermilab’s new measurements are wrong: a one in 40,000 chance, to be precise. As the New York Times points out, this means scientists can’t officially claim it as a discovery based on physics standards.
Polly also said that only less than six percent of the data collected by the Fermilab experiments has been analyzed so far. “Although these first results are telling us that there is an intriguing difference with the Standard Model, we will learn much more in the next couple of years,” he said.
Still, physicists around the world are thrilled. Mark Lancaster, a University of Manchester researcher and the UK lead of the experiment, told the BBC, “Clearly, this is really exciting because it theoretically leads to a future of new laws of physics, new particles, and a new force that we have not seen to date.”
Cambridge University researcher Ben Allanach, who was not involved in the experiments, is hopeful that the results will eventually be verified. “My Spidey sense is tingling and telling me that this is going to be real,” he told the British broadcaster.