Kentucky group part of landmark physics experiment that points to a ‘gap in our knowledge’
On a Zoom call in February, a team of professors from the University of Kentucky along with hundreds of their colleagues across the country held their breaths waiting to find out the results of three years of work.
When the moment of truth came, there was silence, "then it just broke out," said Renee Fatemi, a British professor of physics. It was only as loud as zoom can get, of course, but it did little to dampen its importance.
"Of course everyone is muted, but I think everyone in their own home was screaming and it was just amazing," said Tim Gorringe, also a UK physics professor.
Those who looked at this zoom were all part of a large-scale physics experiment at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Batavia, Illinois. The experiment is intended to reproduce another study from 2001 more precisely and in a more modern way. The results of the original experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory have pushed the boundaries of the best known theories in physics about the building blocks of the universe. The early results of the most recent Fermilab experiment are consistent with the Brookhaven results and are making headlines across the country.
“For two decades people have wondered if the Brookhaven measurement was correct. Was it a coincidence? Asked Fatemi.
The results of both experiments indicate a possible gap in the Standard Model of Physics - essentially a compilation of the best theory that explains the nuances of the particles and forces of the universe. According to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the model "successfully explained almost all experimental results and accurately predicted a large number of phenomena".
The results at Fermilab and Brookhaven suggest that the model is incomplete and that much remains to be learned in the subatomic world. Brad Plaster, also a physics professor in the UK, said the experiments "may indicate a knowledge gap".
"There's a disagreement between what the experiment measured and what the best theories to date have calculated," Plaster said. "And so you might think that this is evidence that there are some particles or forces that are not considered in the best theory yet."
Traditionally, empty space "or the vacuum" was viewed as completely empty, but Gorringe said modern physicists know that space is filled with particles that "appear and disappear". Inside the vacuum there are particles that “we know” about - for example electrons - as well as particles and forces that “we don't know about”.
The results at Fermilab suggest "that there is something in vacuum beyond the particles and forces you have in your current theory or model," Gorringe said. "So this is what we want to investigate - is that the contents of the vacuum?"
At the heart of both experiments are subatomic particles called muons. Muons are like electrons, they have spin and a charge, but are much heavier than electrons, Gorringe explained. They have been known to scientists for decades.
"In fact, muons rain on us, you and I," explained Plaster, explaining that the particles appear naturally when cosmic rays hit Earth's atmosphere.
Fermilab's particle accelerators can generate large quantities of muons. To conduct the experiment, a beam of muons is injected into the 50-foot diameter blue ring, which they circulate about a thousand times as researchers measure their "magnetic moment" or strength when they interact with a magnetic field inside the ring.
"This is really the key to the experiment of storing, catching and holding the muons while we observe them," said Gorringe.
The Standard Model has a specific measurement for the magnetism of the muons, but the measurements at Brookhaven and now at Fermilab do not match the Standard Model, suggesting that something - particles or forces still unknown - may be acting on the muon.
The researchers found out about this during this zoom call in February, an "unbinding" process, in which the final number was required to unlock the results. In plans to get even more accurate data than the Brookhaven experiment, Gorringe said the experiment is still ongoing and will stretch for years into the future.
"I've been part of other unblindings and other experiments, but none of them brought me that importance and weight," said Plaster.
The British professors occupied a variety of roles in the experiment, besides what they say, a remarkably diverse group of dedicated and hardworking students.
Fatemi is the simulation manager of the experiment and was one of the people who helped develop and run the simulations. The experiment was used to explain what can be seen in the data. Plaster and his students worked on a "toolkit of simulations" that would allow them to follow the muons around the ring, while Gorringe and his group developed the system that read and processed the "large amount of data" generated by the experiment.
As in many fields, physics tends to have little representation from minority groups, Fatemi said. The British group is made up of very different nationalities and genders of which Fatemi is proud.
"We have someone from China, we have someone from India, we have someone from Spain, we have someone from Kentucky, and all of these people work together," said Fatemi.
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