Scientists Created Something That Breaks The Laws Of Physics

Scientists Created Something That Breaks The Laws Of Physics

The year is 1998, and Dr. Chris Polly is a graduate student working at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. The facility has just installed a new machine that is unlike anything he’s ever seen before: The Alternating Gradient Synchrotron, also known as the Muon g-2 ring. It’s a fourteen-ton behemoth, featuring a particle accelerator capable of firing muon beams into a fifty-foot-wide storage ring.

Scientists Created Something That Breaks The Laws Of Physics

This ring is essentially a racetrack for subatomic particles, using powerful superconductors to create a magnetic field within. It’s a piece of technology so delicate it needs to be kept at - 450 degrees Fahrenheit to even function. The purpose of this machine is to study a kind of particle known as a muon. 

Little does Polly know, it’s with this very machine that he and his team of physicists may be toppling mankind’s most accurate set of laws for our universe: The Standard Model of Particle Physics. How is such a thing even possible, and what does any of this mean? Take a deep breath and hold on to your brain, because everything we thought we knew about particle physics may be about to change. 

Our story starts all the way back in 1936, with the discovery of the muon - a little-known particle outside of physics circles, but the lynchpin of everything we’ll be discussing today. Cast your mind back to your physics class in high school, and see if you can remember the structure of the atom: It’s a nucleus - formed out of protons - being orbited by electrons. 

Protons carry a positive electrical charge, and electrons carry a negative charge. This refresher is important because the Muon is essentially a much larger version of the electron - around 207 times larger, to be exact. It’s so similar to an electron in a structural sense that some scientists even refer to them as “fat electrons”, and crucially, it’s also an incredibly stable particle, meaning it won’t degrade as quickly as some others. 

You have to bear in mind, though, that everything we’re discussing here is incomprehensibly small. Even the most stable particles degrade within millionths of a second, which is why the development of incredibly precise particle accelerators in the last few decades has been such a boon for physicists trying to study our universe. 

Looking through the lens of quantum mechanics - which is to say, the laws of interaction between subatomic particles - the muons display some interesting traits. Because of their negative charge, they have a tendency to display something known as a Larmor precession - often colloquially referred to as a wobble - while placed in a magnetic field. The speed of this wobble can be used to calculate a muon’s “magnetic moment” - this is a value affected by the interactions of the muon with other subatomic particles. 

Think of it almost like a woman’s husband coming home one night smelling of beer, cigarettes, and perfume. You could probably estimate from this data point - i.e, the telltale smells - what kind of people he’s been rubbing elbows with. As we mentioned earlier, a Muon is functionally the same as an electron, except 207 times larger. Therefore, using what we know about the electron and its properties from prior research, it should be easy to factor in the size difference and figure out the particle’s g-factor. 

The g-factor, to use an extremely pared-down definition, is the value that gives us insight into the magnetic moment of a particle. We can figure out the g-factor of a Muon by judging how fast it wobbles while inside a magnetic field. Currently, we know that the g-factor of a Muon is higher than 2, hence the designation g-2 - pronounced G minus 2, because when the 2 is extracted, all that’s left is the precise measurement of the magnetic moment of a Muon. 

This equation has allowed scientists to come up with a prediction for what the exact g-factor of a Muon is. Still with us? Good. To make a prediction, scientists need a theoretical framework. And in this case, that framework is the Standard Model. Thanks to the hard work of a hell of a lot of physicists, we know that literally everything that exists is made of fundamental particles and driven by fundamental forces. 

The question since then has been, “What are they?” Currently, there are four known fundamental forces - the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and the gravitational force. The theory that has come the closest to explaining three of the four forces and all known fundamental particles is the Standard Model.

Scientists Created Something That Breaks The Laws Of Physics

Physics is a complex field - it’s perhaps the broadest of all of the sciences. After all, it encompasses everything from the extreme micro, like the subatomic particles we’re discussing today, to the extreme macro, like the very expanse of the universe itself. Because of the limits of technology, it’s impossible to fully understand the quantum world's full totality. That’s why physicists need to use our partial knowledge to build theoretical frameworks which they can use to make educated assumptions about the areas we don’t have comprehensive data on yet. 

The strength of a theory is tested on how many of its assumptions are proved correct through experimentation, and what the theory gets wrong tells us about the gaps in our knowledge, and where further research is needed. This is the most important thing to understand about what people mean when they say “the laws of physics.” These are not immutable rules that govern universal action, engraved in stone on top of a mountain. 

The laws of physics are a human construct designed to impose a sense of logic and understanding on the nature and behavior of the universe, from the subatomic to the cosmic. When the laws of physics are broken, nothing about the universe fundamentally changes - what shifts is our understanding of it. 

In a sense, the laws of physics truly are the laws that are meant to be broken, as most experiments in the field are trying to do just that. But, before we get to laws being broken, let’s take a look at the laws that the Standard Model of Particle Physics is laying down. 

As we mentioned earlier, the Standard Model can explain the functions and interplay of three of the fundamental forces of the universe: The strong force, the weak force, and the electromagnetic force, as well as corresponding carrier particles, exchanged during the transfer of energy, known as bosons. The Standard Model also accounts for twelve different fundamental or elementary particles. 

These are divided into two groups: Quarks and Leptons. The quarks include the up quark, down quark, charm quark, strange quark, top quark, and bottom quark. The Leptons include the electron, electron neutrino, muon, muon neutrino, tau, and tau neutrino. You don’t need to know a huge amount about these two groups, but for the purposes of distinguishing them, it’s worth noting that they’re subject to different fundamental forces. 

Quarks are subject to all four forces, but the Leptons are only subject to three, having no connection to the strong force. What gives the Standard Model such a foothold in physics is how incredibly accurate its estimations have been. Not only has it pretty much perfectly predicted the behavior of a number of subatomic particles, but it also predicted the very existence of several phenomena - including the legendary Higgs Boson, also known as The God Particle, discovered in 2012. 

However, there are still concepts that exist outside the remit of the Standard Model, including anti-matter, dark matter, and its biggest blind spot of all, the function of gravity in the quantum world. So, it goes without saying that the Standard Model isn’t perfect, but it’s undeniably the best set of laws for quantum physics we currently have. 

Until, of course, the Muon experiments began. We return to Dr. Chris Polly, back in 1998, with his incredible Muon g-2 machine. As we said earlier, a theory is only as good as its predictions, and if the subatomic universe really is comprised of six quarks, six leptons, and some bosons, then the Standard Model should be able to perfectly predict the g-factor of a Muon inside a magnetic field. 

But as Polly and his fellow physicists fired the Muon beam into the field, preparing to time the speed of the resulting wobbles, they came to a startling conclusion: The prediction for the g-factor under the Standard Model was way off, at least in terms of the level of certainty to call something “correct” in physics. And as it’s important to remember, the g-factor and magnetic moment are affected by the kinds of particles and forces that the Muon is interacting with. 

If the team’s hunch was right and this result wasn’t just some statistical fluke, this could only mean one thing: They just defied our most accurate model for the quantum world. In other words, they just broke the laws of physics. But before they could replicate the experiment, Brookhaven pulled the plugin 2001. 

It shouldn’t be surprising that a 14-ton machine that needs temperatures of negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit to work costs a lot of money to keep running. Dr. Polly was devastated - if he could prove this new discovery wasn’t a fluke, he’d be a shoo-in for a Nobel Prize. It’d change the very face of particle physics. But he’d just lost his opportunity. His time would come again, but it wouldn’t be for another two decades. 

Flash forward to 2018. Dr. Polly, now a much more experienced physicist, was at the head of a new Muon research division at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. He got to unite with an old friend: The Muon g-2 Ring, transported by barge and truck all the way from Long Island so the long-awaited experiments could finally resume. 

At long last, he could revisit the experiment that had haunted him for 20 years, and see if it was possible to reproduce the results. And according to the current data, it seems that Dr. Polly’s patience has been rewarded with the discovery of his career. A discovery that he himself compared to landing a human on Mars for the particle physics world. 

The Fermi team documented a Muon particle once again disobeying the laws of physics. The particles were wobbling significantly too fast to comply with the Standard Model's predictions, opening up a bevy of wild possibilities. If the data, once again, isn’t a fluke, then it potentially implies that there are more fundamental particles out there than we’d previously imagined. 

Some have even theorized that it could be a sign of a previously undocumented fifth fundamental power acting on the Muons. It’s too early to go into any specifics on this. A lot of the data collected in this latest round of experiments hasn’t been properly processed, and until then, there’s still a 1 in 40,000 chance that this data could just be a statistical anomaly. 

This may seem like an insignificant change, but physics works on a very different set of parameters to your daily life. Either way, these early leads are extremely promising, and a lot of physicists are celebrating right now. 

You may think it’s counterintuitive to celebrate further holes being pierced into the Standard Model, but mourning disproven theories has never been how physicists roll. If the data continues to corroborate this new discovery, it means there are particles and potentially even fundamental forces out there, waiting to be discovered. 

These areas will be like open oceans, to be sailed and explored by new generations of physicists for decades or even centuries to come. Some people see physics as piles of boring math or dusty old textbooks, but physics is actually the quest to truly understand the incredible mystery that is the universe we live in. And what’s particularly amazing about discoveries like this one is that it proves we’re still only getting started. 

The answers are out there, and it’s up to the world’s intrepid researchers to explore, experiment, and find them - even if it means breaking a few laws along the way. After all, that’s what physics is all about.

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