Fermilab Particle Physics Experiment – Study Could Change Physics

In 2013, Popular mechanics Contributor William Herkewitz covered the harrowing journey of a gargantuan electromagnet – which would become a vital part of the upcoming Muon g-2 experiment – from Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY, to famed Fermilab just outside of Chicago. .

Today, almost 8 years later, researchers at Fermilab announce the first results of this experiment: a a tiny subatomic particle called a muon is breaking the fundamental rules of the Standard Model of particle physics and upending our understanding of the universe.

Check back soon for more updates as we begin to unveil this exciting new development in the world of particle physics. Meanwhile, enjoy the original story reprinted in its entirety.


From time to time, the exact $25 million tool you need is out there, free to go. Free, that is, if you can move delicate and intricate science equipment across the country without breaking it.

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Researchers at Fermilab, a particle physics laboratory outside of Chicago, recently benefited from this serendipity. A giant donut-shaped electromagnet that has been collecting dust for 12 years at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York could be the centerpiece of an upcoming experiment, which could help scientists understand data from the Large Hadron Collider in Europe . This Saturday, scientists and engineers on both sides will move it. But the 50-foot magnet is so fragile that even the slightest bend – a twist or sag of a third of an inch anywhere – could damage it beyond repair.

“It’s one of a kind,” says Chris Polly, project manager of Muon g-2, the experiment that needs the magnet. He expects Muon g-2 to be operational by 2016. But if the magnet breaks, “it would cost a lot more money and cause quite a big delay.”

Losing the magnet would be devastating for more than just tax reasons. As the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland prepares to ramp up the power of its upcoming experiments, Fermilab’s new project, Muon g-2, could play a supporting role. “It’s a fast timescale we’re talking about,” Polly says. “We want to know the physics right now because it’s useful for interpreting the data coming from the Large Hadron Collider.”

The big move

For someone in charge of $25 million worth of absurdly delicate equipment, Del Allspach, the engineer in charge of the move, describes the trip with surprising calm. Because the magnet can’t be taken apart without damaging it, Fermilab will ship the thing to Illinois on a river trip down the Atlantic and up the Mississippi River. The lab paid for a private barge, a nearly inflexible casing, and a hydraulically leveling trailer designed specifically for this mission of transporting the magnet to and from the water.

During the month-long boat ride, the magnet will be locked in its case, protected from the elements and fitted with safety measurement equipment. “We have four accelerometers and one inclinometer,” says Allspach. “We will be monitoring the readings of these in real time.” If any of its equipment indicates that the water is getting too choppy, it will power up a satellite modem and it will automatically be called day and night. (You can follow the magnet’s path on Muon’s website.)

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On the boat, the magnet will be able to withstand circuit breakers over 16 feet. Yet a surprise jolt or unexpected storm could turn the price magnet into a 17-ton paperweight. Allspach is assured that with the weather forecast and protective and monitoring equipment, the magnet – and with it the hope of starting the Muon g-2 experiment as soon as possible – is not in danger. “We have made the calculations,” he said, “and we will have complete control of the barge.”

Comb the void

Muon g-2 will study short-lived particles that appear and disappear in a vacuum. The experiment relies on one of the strange truths of particle physics: that empty space is anything but empty. Even in a perfect vacuum, pairs of particles – a proton and an antiproton, for example, or an electron and an antielectron – materialize from the vacuum, only to vanish into oblivion a moment later. “So a vacuum is practically nothing,” says Bill Morse, a particle physicist with the Muon g-2 experiment.

This allows us to see if new theories really correspond to our observations.

Fermilab scientists plan to study these short-lived particles by launching volleys of muons (the fat, short-lived cousin of the electron) through the giant, empty electromagnet. The electromagnet makes the muons wobble like spinning tops losing their balance. For nearly a century, scientists have been calculating the amount of muons supposed wobble, but they actually wobble a little bit more than expected. Indeed, the muons repel the other particles which enter and leave the vacuum, each one being able to steal a little energy. Physicists call this gap between expectation and reality g-2, hence the name of the experiment.

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That number, g-2 is more than just an interesting Snapple-cap fact. “It helps to see if new theories actually match our observations,” says Glen Marshall, a particle physicist at Canada’s National Particle Physics Laboratory, who is not involved in the Muon g-2 experiment. Any theory that seeks to explain the crazy world of subatomic particles must predict the value of g-2. Any theory that can’t, or gets the number wrong, is dead in the water.

The Fermilab experiment will be the most accurate g-2 measurement to date, and accuracy is paramount. As g-2 measurements become more precise, physicists can narrow down what matter does or does not exist in the universe. And the last time g-2 was measured, the theory that nearly perished was important.

The clue to something more

The Standard Model of particle physics not only describes what particles exist and how they interact, but it also explains a wide variety of subatomic phenomena that other theories cannot. Earlier this year, the theory found an answer to its biggest open question when scientists at the Large Hadron Collider discovered the Higgs boson.

Like all particle physics theories, the Standard Model specifies a precise number for g-2. But the last time g-2 was measured – at Brookhaven in the 1990s using the same electromagnet that Fermilab is in motion – scientists found the Standard Model did not match their findings.

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This could have been a blow to the standard model, but there was a slim chance – just 0.3% – that Brookhaven’s conclusions were wrong and due to chance. And in particle physics, it’s too much. For something to be considered a true discovery, the possibility must be reduced to 0.00006% (arbitrary but widely accepted). Brookhaven didn’t have the power to make a more precise measurement, and so the electromagnet and the researchers who conducted the experiment waited over a decade to give it another try.

At Fermilab, physicists will have their second chance. Thanks to progress made over the past 10 years and because Fermilab will recycle parts of the Tevatron (the high-energy particle accelerator that was shut down in 2011), researchers will be able to record 20 times more muons than they could at Brookhaven. Thanks to this, the Muon g-2 experiment will be able to test the standard model and perhaps see if there is anything strange left to discover. “There could be a new force” or new particles, Morse says. “Another theory is black light. All of these possibilities are possibilities. We don’t know.”

But Marshall points out that the Muon g-2 experiment is only part of a much bigger picture. “You can’t find out what’s beyond the standard pattern with just g-2,” he says. Either way, whether the Muon g-2 experiment challenges the Standard Model, the measurement will help make sense of any future results from other labs. “If there’s a new particle discovered at CERN,” says Marshall, “we’ll know about it right away from the g-2 experiment.”


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