Fermilab experiment hints at a new foundational force in nature

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Fermilab experiment hints at a new foundational force in nature


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Scientists working at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois have made some of the most important discoveries in physics over the years, including the existence of the top quark and the characterization of the neutrino. Now, the team working on Fermilab’s Muon g – 2 experiment have reported a tantalizing hint of a new kind of physics, according to the BBC. If confirmed, it would become the fifth known fundamental force in the universe.

Our current understanding of particle physics is called the Standard Model, which we know is an incomplete picture of the universe. Concepts like the Higgs boson and dark energy don’t fully fit into the Standard Model, and the Muon g-2 could possibly help us understand why. The key to this breakthrough could be the behavior of the muon, a subatomic particle similar to an electron. The muon has a negative charge, but it is much more massive. So it spins like a magnet, indicating a possible new branch of physics.

The roots of the Muon g – 2 experiment can be traced back to work at CERN in the late 1950s. However, the instruments available at the time were too imprecise to accurately measure the muon’s “g-factor”, which describes its rate of turn. The Standard Model predicts that muons oscillate in a certain way, but the 14-meter magnetic accelerator at the heart of Muon g-2 shows that muons have a different g-factor. It may not seem significant, but even a tiny “abnormal magnetic dipole moment,” as scientists call it, could indicate that something mysterious has affected the particles.

The 600 ton G-2 magnet before installation.

We currently know four fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetism, strong force (nuclear cohesion) and weak force (radioactive decay). Anything that causes muon misbehavior in Muon g – 2 could be a fifth force, but we don’t know what it is. Even if the team can confirm the result, we won’t necessarily know what this new force of nature does other than disrupting muons. This part will take a lot more work. Theoretical physicists speculated that the new force could be associated with an undiscovered subatomic particle like the Z-prime boson or leptoquark.

The current focus is on improving the accuracy of the experiment. The new result was reported with a statistical confidence of 4.1 sigma, which is a one in 40,000 chance that the results are just statistical noise. Traditionally, scientists want to see a confidence of 5 sigma (about 1 in 3.5 million) before they call anything confirmed. This is something physicists will be talking about a lot in the coming months.

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