Physics is Broken!!!

Last Thursday, an experiment reported that the magnetic properties of the muon, the electron’s middleweight cousin, are a tiny bit different from what particle physics equations say they should be. All around the world, the headlines screamed: PHYSICS IS BROKEN!!! And indeed, it’s been pretty shocking to physicists everywhere. For instance, my equations are working erratically; many of the calculations I tried this weekend came out upside-down or backwards. Even worse, my stove froze my coffee instead of heating it, I just barely prevented my car from floating out of my garage into the trees, and my desk clock broke and spilled time all over the floor. What a mess!

Broken, eh? When we say a coffee machine or a computer is broken, it means it doesn’t work. It’s unavailable until it’s fixed. When a glass is broken, it’s shattered into pieces. We need a new one. I know it’s cute to say that so-and-so’s video “broke the internet.” But aren’t we going a little too far now? Nothing’s broken about physics; it works just as well today as it did a month ago.

More reasonable headlines have suggested that “the laws of physics have been broken”. That’s better; I know what it means to break a law. (Though the metaphor is imperfect, since if I were to break a state law, I’d be punished, whereas if an object were to break a fundamental law of physics, that law would have to be revised!) But as is true in the legal system, not all physics laws, and not all violations of law, are equally significant.

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The Puzzle of the Proton and the Muon

Fig. 1: A hydrogen atom consists of a tiny proton surrounded by an electron cloud, which is where the even tinier electron is to be found when sought.
Fig. 1: A hydrogen atom consists of a tiny proton “orbited” by an electron.

There’s been a lot of reporting recently on a puzzle in particle physics that I haven’t previously written about. There have been two attempts, a preliminary one in 2010 and a more detailed one reported just this month, to measure the size of a proton by studying the properties of an exotic atom, called “muonic hydrogen”. Similar to hydrogen, which consists of a proton orbited by an electron (Figure 1), this atom consists of a proton and a short-lived heavy cousin of the electron, called the muon (Figure 2). A muon, as far as we have ever been able to tell, is just like an electron in all respects except that it is heavier; more precisely, the electromagnetic force and the strong and weak nuclear force treat electrons and muons in exactly the same way. Only the first two of these forces should play a role in atoms (and neither gravity nor any force due to the Higgs field should matter either). So because we have confirmed our understanding of ordinary hydrogen with very high precision, we believe we also understand muonic hydrogen very well also.  But something’s amiss.

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