What was this precious cargo? A scientific instrument that researchers hoped would shed new light on the field of physics once it reached its new home in a new lab.
Eight years later, this equipment has done just that. On Wednesday, a scientific measurement
, recorded by this apparatus, was publicly released. This may not sound like much, but this single measurement tells scientists that their theory about what is called the standard model of particle physics
is incomplete -- and has to be rethought.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, this is not bad news. The purpose of science is to seek truth. With this goal in mind, researchers are constantly returning to their data and checking to see if measurements and theories agree or disagree. While agreement is always satisfying, it's in the disagreement that progress is made. When a theory is shown to predict something other than what a valid measurement has revealed, scientists rethink their theory and adjust it.
The standard model of particle physics, at the center of this news, explains the world of atoms and smaller things, and it was developed in the 1960s and 1970s
. It has been universally accepted in the scientific world as being the most accurate subatomic theory devised so far. But that venerable model could well need to be changed because of this new measurement, which gives us reason to believe that the standard model is incomplete.
What the standard model predicts -- and what this new measurement assesses -- are the magnetic properties of an ephemeral subatomic particle called a muon,
which is very similar to the familiar electron, but with some differences. Muons are about 200 times heavier
than electrons and they decay in a little over a millionth of a second
. Otherwise, electrons and muons have a lot in common.