Are We on the Brink of a New Age of Scientific Discovery?

Muon g-2 Experiment at Fermilab

The centerpiece of the Muon g-2 experiment at Fermilab is a 50-foot-diameter superconducting magnetic storage ring, which sits in its detector hall amidst electronics racks, the muon beamline and other equipment. Credit: Reidar Hahn, Fermilab

Scientists experimenting with a subatomic particle called a muon encountered something unexpected in 2001 at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, a facility used for research in nuclear and high-energy physics.

To explain the fundamental physical forces at work in the universe and to predict the results of high-energy particle experiments like those conducted at Brookhaven, Fermilab in Illinois, and at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, physicists rely on the decades-old theory called the Standard Model, which should explain the precise behavior of muons when they are fired through an intense magnetic field created in a superconducting magnetic storage ring. When the muon in the Brookhaven experiment reacted in a way that differed from their predictions, researchers realized they were on the brink of a discovery that could change science’s understanding of how the universe works.

Earlier this month, after a decades-long effort that involved building more powerful sensors and improving researchers’ capacity to process 120 terabytes of data (the equivalent of 16 million digital photographs every week), a team of scientists at Fermilab announced the first results of an experiment called Muon g-2 that suggests the Brookhaven find was no fluke and that science is on the brink of an unprecedented discovery.

UVA physics professor Dinko Počanić has been involved in the Muon g-2 experiment for the better part of two decades, and UVA Today spoke with him to learn more about what it means.

Q. What are the findings of the Brookhaven and Fermilab Muon g-2 experiments, and why are they important?

A. So, in the Brookhaven experiment, they did several measurements with positive and negative muons – an unstable, more massive cousin of the electron – under different circumstances, and when they averaged their measurements, they quantified a magnetic anomaly that is characteristic of the muon more precisely than ever before. According to relativistic quantum mechanics, the strength of the muon’s magnetic moment (a property it shares with a compass needle or a bar magnet) should be two in appropriate dimensionless units, the same as for an electron. The Standard Model states, however, that it’s not two, it’s a little bit bigger, and that difference is the magnetic anomaly. The anomaly reflects the coupling of the muon to pretty much all other particles that exist in nature. How is this possible?

The answer is that space itself is not empty; what we think of as a vacuum contains the possibility of the creation of elementary particles, given enough energy. In fact, these potential particles are impatient and are virtually excited, sparking in space for unimaginably short moments in time. And as fleeting as it is, this sparking is “sensed” by a muon, and it subtly affects the muon’s properties. Thus, the muon magnetic anomaly provides a sensitive probe of the subatomic contents of the vacuum.

To the enormous frustration of all the practicing physicists of my generation and younger, the Standard Model has been maddeningly impervious to challenges. We know there are things that must exist outside of it because it cannot describe everything that we know about the universe and its evolution. For example, it does not explain the prevalence of matter over antimatter in the universe, and it doesn’t say anything about dark matter or many other things, so we know it’s incomplete. And we’ve tried very hard to understand what these things might be, but we haven’t found anything concrete yet.

So, with this experiment, we’re challenging the Standard Model with increasing levels of precision. If the Standard Model is correct, we should observe an effect that is completely consistent with the model because it includes all the possible particles that are thought to be present in nature, but if we see a different value for this magnetic anomaly, it signifies that there’s actually something else. And that’s what we’re looking for: this something else.

This experiment tells us that we’re on the verge of a discovery.

Q. What part have you been able to play in the experiment?

A. I became a member of this collaboration when we had just started planning for the follow-up to the Brookhaven experiment around 2005, just a couple of years after the Brookhaven experiment finished, and we were looking at the possibility of doing a more precise measurements at Brookhaven. Eventually that idea was abandoned, as it turned out that we could do a much better job at Fermilab, which had better beams, more intense muons and better conditions for experiment.

So, we proposed that around 2010, and it was approved and funded by U.S. and international funding agencies. An important part was funded by a National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation grant that was awarded to a consortium of four universities, and UVA was one of them. We were developing a portion of the instrumentation for the detection of positrons that emerge in decays of positive muons. We finished that work, and it was successful, so my group switched focus to the precise measurements of the magnetic field in the storage ring at Fermilab, a critical part of quantifying the muon magnetic anomaly. My UVA faculty colleague Stefan Baessler has also been working on this problem, and several UVA students and postdocs have been active on the project over the years.

Q. Fermilab has announced that these are just the first results of the experiment. What still needs to happen before we’ll know what this discovery means?

A. It depends on how the results of our analysis of the yet-unanalyzed run segments turn out. The analysis of the first run took about three years. The run was completed in 2018, but I think now that we we’ve ironed out some of the issues in the analysis, it might go a bit faster. So, in about two years it would not be unreasonable to have the next result, which would be quite a bit more precise because it combines runs two and three. Then there will be another run, and we will probably finish taking data in another two years or so. The precise end of measurements is still somewhat uncertain, but I would say that about five years from now, maybe sooner, we should have a very clear picture.

Q. What kind of impact could these experiments have on our everyday lives?

A. One way is in pushing specific technologies to the extreme in solving different aspects of measurement to get the level of precision we need. The impact would likely come in fields like physics, industry and medicine. There will be technical spinoffs, or at least improvements in techniques, but which specific ones will come out of this, it’s difficult to predict. Usually, we push companies to make products that we need that they wouldn’t otherwise make, and then a new field opens up for them in terms of applications for those products, and that’s what often happens. The World Wide Web was invented, for example, because researchers like us needed to be able to exchange information in an efficient way across great distances, around the world, really, and that’s how we have, well, web browsers, Zoom, Amazon and all these types of things today.

The other way we benefit is by educating young scientists – some of whom will continue in the scientific and academic careers like myself – but others will go on to different fields of endeavor in society. They will bring with them an expertise in very high-level techniques of measurement and analysis that aren’t normally found in many fields.

And then, finally, another outcome is intellectual betterment. One outcome of this work will be to help us better understand the universe we live in.

Q. Could we see more discoveries like this in the near future?

A. Yes, there is a whole class of experiments besides this one that look at highly precise tests of the Standard Model in a number of ways. I’m always reminded of the old adage that if you lose your keys in the street late at night, you are first going to look for them under the street lamp, and that’s what we’re doing. So everywhere there’s a streetlight, we’re looking. This is one of those places – and there are several others, well, I would say dozens of others, if you also include searches that are going on for subatomic particles like axions, dark matter candidates, exotic processes like double beta decay, and those kinds of things. One of these days, new things will be found.

We know that the Standard Model is incomplete. It’s not wrong, insofar as it goes, but there are things outside of it that it does not incorporate, and we will find them.

52 Comments on "Are We on the Brink of a New Age of Scientific Discovery?"

  1. Not with all the woke garbage infiltrating the hard sciences. So much wasted time, resources and energy. At the very least it’s setting things back years.

  2. Great. Biggest detriment would be if USA morphs into socialism instead of fair capitisjm that has saved what a billion from poverty. Will there be anyone like Elon Musk and Nobel prize winner Neil Borlaug food saviour if puppet masters of Biden reach their dreams?

  3. Kelle Tallman | May 9, 2021 at 5:44 pm | Reply

    Happy M’s Day My Blue Eyed Son..

  4. Timothy D Bechtel | May 9, 2021 at 7:49 pm | Reply

    Such A-holes in the comments. Do you even science bruh?

  5. Thank you for these amazing discoveries!

  6. Tim Wilkins | May 9, 2021 at 9:42 pm | Reply

    Thankfully Biden’s admin cares about science, unlike the twice impeached savage.

    I look forward to a brighter future.

  7. Wow, racist scientists.

  8. I want to know if this helps to prove the theory that we are living in a simulation.

  9. Scott Steffen | May 10, 2021 at 12:39 am | Reply

    Science is a pursuit of knowledge and truth.. There’s no woke garbage or Socialism.. Real Science has no agendas, just the pursuit of knowledge and truth.. People can have agendas, Scientist do not, they can not.. The Scientific Method is not a suggestion, it is gospel.. This article tells the story of Scientists working on something that could literally change the direction of Physics.. Think how excited and anxious you would be, and then listen to them talk about the many years of collecting data still to come to make sure they are correct.. That IS Science.. Science is the turtle, not the rabbit.. Getting it right is more important than getting there first..

  10. Gregory Zaret | May 10, 2021 at 2:26 am | Reply

    The last paragraph was stated with a beautiful confidence. I am looking forward to these discoveries.

  11. Seems like the muon itself should be used to find the excitables the street lights aren’t necessary.

  12. When did sub-literate right wing trolls start reading scientific literature? If your grasp of physics is as dim as your understanding of politics I’d be surprised if got any of it

  13. Abed Peerally | May 10, 2021 at 8:00 am | Reply

    The Standard Model is comprehensive and very likely cannot be substantially modified. To me based on theoretical reasoning dark matter and dark energy do not exist. This is explained in my coming second book soon. The origin of the universe was a Supernatural Act and no new evidence is possible to alter that view. However the universe is expanding and we need an acceptable way to explain it. Surely it cannot be due to a bew form of energy. It possibly is linked to the dynamics of quarks. A kind of action reaction scenario. In fact both dark energy and dark matter are misunderstood phenomena.

  14. Abed simply leaves out the fact that no new evidence points to his dogmatic lense either. Sorry your God doesn’t exist. No new evidence is possible to alter that view.

  15. TemplarLoyalty | May 10, 2021 at 8:35 am | Reply

    These people talking about political nonsense regarding a discussion about SCIENCE are confused.
    Blah, blah, blah, the terrible Socialism. But which kind of Socialism bc there are SEVEN models and THIRTY SEVEN variants. So unintelligent.

    Someday, our current knowledge of physics will be proven to be incorrect. This discovery starts the new path.

  16. Private enterprise rarely funds basic scientific research outside of the life sciences and chemistry. Work on topics in physics such as the decay of muons has historically been funded by universities and government. The system of government is less important than the level of support for basic research and scientists’ ability to work with colleagues all over the world. If humanity doesn’t pollute or battle itself into extinction, we are always on the brink of a new era of scientific knowledge.

  17. Well it ought to at least mean they are going to get another grant.

  18. You trolls complaining about wokeness and the U.S. being socialist. It is government funding that allows most of this research to move forward. Or in other words, socialism.

  19. It is about science, what kind of comments are those? Pretentious but shallow, proving what? Ignirance illusion..?

  20. It is about science, what kind of comments are those? Pretentious but shallow, proving what? Ignorance illusion..?

  21. And. Who cares

  22. Bill Simpson | May 10, 2021 at 2:22 pm | Reply

    Socialism is defined as government OWNERSHIP of the means of production. Since the US government doesn’t even make its own weapons for the military, much less make anything else, there is no socialism in the United States.
    Find me a US politician who says that the government should seize, or purchase, a single industry. You might find a few, but not many in a nation of hundreds of thousands of elected politicians.
    And for all you name callers, if you really don’t like big government programs, be sure to opt out of Medicare when you turn 65. If I were you, I would save a lot of money before then. You can pay your hospital and drug bills all by yourself, with your own money, or with your children’s extra thousands. Send back the excess Social Security funds too, after you get those checks equaling what you contributed to the program. After doing those, you can call other people ‘socialists’, even though it will still be wrong.

  23. About the matter antimatter lack of symmetry: since it has been stated that the effective energy of the universe is zero, i.e., matter energy being cancelled out by gravity, does that not tell us that what should have been antimatter became space-time when the universe came into being?!
    Hope the idea makes a little sense.😁👿 (Yes! It makes little sense!😁)

  24. Fund the sciences | May 10, 2021 at 6:38 pm | Reply

    The ignorant right wing comments are depressingly hilarious.

  25. Tony McClung | May 10, 2021 at 8:37 pm | Reply

    Trumplicans responding to science with all the stupidity you would expect from there very tiny minds. If you don’t like it.. it’s Commie’s… Or woke or not real science…

    Interesting article…

  26. Look at all the boomer liberal “IFL” wokes defending socialism, in all the usual tiring ways (“socialism doesn’t even exist in the US!” “Ackshally, there are thirty seven different socialisms, stupid!” “but muh medicare!”) — go watch some more Star Trek, worship Big Government, and pretend Biden’s gonna save you!

  27. What is going to happen is that sooner or later the research WILL DESTROY The Universe!!! At least as we know it. Reminds me of a SciFi story I read in an Anthology, from way back in ’61

  28. Kiumars Lalezarzadeh | May 11, 2021 at 4:59 pm | Reply

    In relativistic terms, I want to know how much of the Muon’s spin and gravitational pulls can be as a function of the instruments magnets, electromagnetism in the environment (street / building electric cables), and planetary geomagnetism- that affect the ocean tides, nevermind Muon’s or electrodes. If so how much of the spins are inherent and how much are artifacts- confounding variable. Perhaps the standard measure estimated and deducted the sources of artifact / confounds.

  29. Funny how a discussion on any subject can turn into political nonsense. Leave physics alone please.. Hopefully you understand. I don’t have any crayons to draw it out…

  30. I hate politics | May 13, 2021 at 7:21 am | Reply

    I don’t know why there are so many political statements in the comments, but this is a good article.

  31. Pseudointellectual statements (mostly political) by people trying to pat their own backs and stroke their own egos having nothing to do with the actual reading material….lol

  32. Has anyone noticed that these megnetic conductors are placed exactly like stonehenge. This could be a huge discovery. May be stonehenge was build for the same purpose. There structure reminds me of stonehenge
    How strange

  33. I believe dark matter and dark energy are but one and the same.

  34. So what of a future time line consideration then? Will be be waiting another one or two decades before some truly extraordinary significance is achieved….or is the answer to that also tied up in unpredictability?

  35. The secret lies within the ONE…silly humans.

  36. Not sure how inserting your political opinion or standing relates to an article based on the future of science and or physics but glad there are some people out there that like to stick to The Science.

  37. God's wrath you will fear... | May 14, 2021 at 5:56 pm | Reply

    What if God doesn’t approve of your scientific knowledge and research?
    An these actions against God leads to the world being taken away from us.
    An Jesus Christ will do just that.
    Just like those of Babylon…
    Play with nature.
    Change biological procedures for mankind.
    An try to reach God and his existence.
    You are playing with your destruction and this world…Sealed in REVELATIONS…AMEN

  38. mahesh khati | May 15, 2021 at 8:05 am | Reply

    Something is common in all particles

  39. Kenny Wagnon | May 15, 2021 at 8:06 am | Reply

    Looking for and studying particles of
    Energy’s . Are measuring the effect on space time .what about measuring the ethereal effects on muons.also colliding particles is a misleading science because making a particle collide to measure the energy and fractal collision to extract the workings of space time. Is great but it
    Doesn’t and answer the makeup of the Vail of the purpatraitor furnace that started the contradiction envelope of
    Space time. Which the human race will never discover .before their demise as a species. But good luck in finding it.

  40. Well frankie as any government type can fail just look at whats happening to america now your many years late about socialism.Every time your leaders thats so afraid of socialism tell you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps but give billion dollar companies a hand out because they could put money away for a rainy day thats socialism.SOCIAL security thats socialism also.Stop listening to rich people that dont care about you or me that just want a vote to keep getting all those perks and donations.If democracies can fail with the do that means socialism can succeed it all depends on the structure of government and proper checks and balances which in america at the moment is starting to crack.

    • Wow didnt see all the errors had to repost.

      Well frankie as any government type can fail just look at whats happening to america now your many years late about socialism.Every time your leaders thats so afraid of socialism tell you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but give billion dollar companies a hand out because they couldn’t put money away for a rainy day thats socialism.SOCIAL security thats socialism also.Stop listening to rich people that dont care about you or me and just want a vote to keep getting all those perks and donations.If democracies can fail which they do, that means socialism can succeed it all depends on the structure of government and proper checks and balances which in america at the moment is starting to crack.

  41. It’ll never happen without good ol fossil fuels

  42. Damn lunatic talking about socialism and science not going hand in hand and showing he knows nothing of both! Science advances in all types of political structures e.g. Russia, U.S.A., China, Japan, Iran, Turkey etc and it’s driven by political will, so shut your trap and celebrate good science wherever it is made!

  43. Excellent! That’s what moves the world forward.
    There will always be ignorance that craves for the caves. But hypocritically, only in words, while happily enjoying the achievements of science.

  44. Ether anyone?

  45. Science has so much limitations

  46. “after a decades-long effort that involved building more powerful sensors and improving researchers’ capacity to process 120 terabytes of data (the equivalent of 16 million digital photographs every week).”

    Huh. I built a 128TB high speed storage solution in March for $3300… 🤔

  47. This is in reply to those who talked about God and Science as being exclusive to each other. But in my view, God’s creation is absolutely scientific. How can it not be scientific. There is God AND there is science. The two co-exist.

  48. Can this discovery and information be helpful or used to cure cancer?

  49. What ? We can’t even figure out whether or not to keep wearing these stupid facemasks anymore. And we are on the verge of a new scientific discovery ? Give me a break.

  50. Dark matter is pure speculation to make the Big Bang work. It won’t be found because it didn’t happen that way.

  51. Brent Ferguson | May 16, 2021 at 1:36 pm | Reply

    More than 3 decades ago I postulated the existence of Muon’s and gluons as the particle structure comprising protons and electrons. As our scientific knowledge increases I am certain we will Soon discover the quantum entanglements Which explain the interaction of these subatomic particles with magnetic Fields and waveform particles. I built a functioning fission device model at age 13, and an analgesic model to cocaine at age 19. The parallel vibrations of quantum entanglements will allow communication over time before I am 60. Solid state batteries were the missing key to the lock.

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