[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’d love to wish you a happy Monday, but I understand that for many of you and me in various places across Canada, it’s not that happy a Monday. And I could begin this week by interviewing doctors and scientists and reporters about COVID-19, but I don’t know that that would help you now, either. What I can do though, is tell you a story that reminds you that the universe is bigger and more mysterious than it feels sometimes, that in the middle of a crisis of historical portions, science has never stopped discovering new things.
Yes. The vaccines that were developed more quickly than any vaccine in history are one example. And so is the fact that for decades, we have based our understanding of physics on something called the standard model. And now we’re finding out that [00:01:00] it doesn’t explain everything the way we thought it did.
And if that’s true, then that means there are other things out there that we don’t understand, but are a critical part of how our universe works. It means there’s more to discover more, to find more, to look forward to, even if it doesn’t feel like that right now. So I hope that reminder helps and also strap on your science helmets, but not to talk about a deadly virus.
I’m Jordan . This is the big story, Dennis Overby is a science reporter at the New York times. Hello, Dennis!
Dennis Overby: Uh, hello Jordan. Nice to be here.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Thank you so much. And maybe to start, you can answer the question for me is, is what is a muon. And did I even pronounce that correctly? If that gives you some level of, of what I’m working with here.
Dennis Overby: So it’s called a muon, um, after the Greek letter mu. [00:02:00] Hardly anybody knows what a muon is, except for a few physicists. Um, it’s kind of like an electron. So we know about electrons and protons. Those, those are what you find in atoms. The muon was discovered in 1936 in a cosmic ray shower, and nobody knew what to do with it.
In fact, there’s a famous story about, uh, Isidor Rabi, who is a Nobel Laureate physicist at Columbia said, “Who ordered that?” People are still trying to figure out what, where does the muon fit into the plan of creation?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So what did we just learn about them? Uh, you know, 80 or so years after their initial discovery, uh, what happened last week for, for want of a better question?
Dennis Overby: So what happened last week um, is. Let me step back and give you a broader picture.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Perfect.
Dennis Overby: There is a theory. That’s reigned in physics for the last almost 50 years called the standard model and [00:03:00] it describes everything physicists can know and measure about the universe. At least in a laboratory like at CERN.
It describes like- the universe is made up of 17 fundamental kinds of particles and all the forces and interactions between them. And it works so well that physicists have not been able to find any violation of this model for nearly 50 years, which is very upsetting because this model is, uh, is a mathematical, uh, miracle, but it doesn’t explain whole bunch of things that people would like do to know about the universe.
Like what happens at the center of a black hole or what’s the dark matter? That is. More weighty in the universe than ordinary matter that we’re made of, or even why there’s matter in the universe instead of nothing at all. These are big questions that the standard model doesn’t approach for all its magnificence.
So what they found [00:04:00] they verified last week was that when you put this muon in a magnetic field and spin it around, it just spins a little bit faster than the predictions of this standard model. And these predictions are incredibly precise because the deviation from theory doesn’t happen until about the seventh or eighth decimal place.
That’s, that’s how integrally physics works these days. And we’re glad it does because otherwise our computers wouldn’t work. Most of what, we rely on to get through the day wouldn’t work. So this little telltale discrepancy. There’s maybe daylight to some new news about the universe that physicists haven’t been able to, to get into yet.
So they’re very excited, but it’s, it’s not quite there yet. It could still be a fluke, but right now it looks like there is this discrepancy. And if it grows over the next few [00:05:00] years, then they’ll be able to say, yeah, there’s something more than the standard model. Something more than these 17 particles that we’ve been stuck with for the last 50 years, new news about the universe.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What does it mean? Um, and what happens when the standard model gets appended? You know, to your point, we rely on this to build all sorts of things and now, it’s not entirely accurate if this is true?
Dennis Overby: Right. There’s something when it says that there’s something missing in the kind of roster of potential particles that can exist in the universe, believe it or not, probably a hundred papers have been published in the last week by theorists-
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Really?
Dennis Overby: Suggesting explanations. Yes, there, the last thing I saw a couple of days ago, it was like, you know, 50 papers had been published, but. So the first thing they have to do is that they started this experiment in 2018 and they’ve reported on 6% of the data that they [00:06:00] expect to eventually get. There was their first run. Now they’re on their, they’re completing the fourth or fifth run of this experiment.
So in another year or two, they’ll have much better statistics and they’ll be able to say, yeah, there really is a discrepancy here or it’s just a mistake. And in the meantime, Oh, the particle theorists are going crazy. And they’re trying to devise with this. Are there different ways of looking at data from the large Hadron Collider, for example, in which some of these particles might’ve shown up, but unless you know exactly what to look for in these data streams, which are petabytes, trillions and trillions of bits of information, it can be hard to find something.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Assuming the data proves out and it’s not a mistake. How would scientists then go about finding what that discrepancy is, like, what that missing particle could be?
Dennis Overby: Well, there is, there are lots of competing ideas [00:07:00] and some of them can be tested at the large Hadron Collider. They might find these new proposed particles in data they already have.
If they look through it the right way. Now, the Collider is supposed to, has been basically on vacation for the last two years. And it’s starting up again a year from now, um, with more, more intensity. And so there’ll be more, much more data coming from the large Hadron Collider. There also experiments with, uh, particles called neutrinos, which are part of this ros- the standard model roster of funny little lightweight particles, and they’re- some of these explanations involve, uh, other particles that might decay into these neutrinos and might’ve affected the expansion of the universe during the big bang. So astronomers are very excited about that. It’s going to be a, a real sort of a marketplace of ideas, you know, who knows what it can-
If this is a little thread that [00:08:00] you tug on and, and you know, some of these great mysteries unravel. Nobody really knows that yet, but they’re hopeful that, like, some mystery will unravel that we’re not at the end of the road. It’ll certainly give a boost to people who want to build bigger colliders. I mean, right now the large Hadron Collider outside Geneva is the biggest, it’s the biggest machine in the world, basically. It’s 17 miles around and bangs together, protons at the speed of light. But there are people that want to be a much bigger Collider, 60 or 70 miles around. And they would bang protons together with 10 times as much energy as they’re getting now. And that, that could lead to the new discovery of new particles, but it’s, you know, it’s another $10 billion.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Dennis Overby: Or more, you know.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: But if this particle exists and the standard model, [00:09:00] uh, does not account for it. Does that mean- and again, I’m not, you know, trying to go on flights of fancy or anything, but presumably that brings up the possibility that there might be many other particles or many other things that we’re missing.
Dennis Overby: Exactly. And we probably are missing many, these things start out simple, like, well, what’s the particle that does so-and-so and then they find out, well, there’s actually a whole family of particles, just like. There’s not just the electron. The electron has a cousin called the muon, the muon has an even heavier cousin called the tau.
Um, so things just get more and more complicated. The more you look at them. And right now, both physicists and astronomers are obsessed with dark matter, which occupies about 25% of the universe by weight. And it’s invisible. And we don’t know what it is, but we all, we know that it’s not ordinary matter and we can’t see it, but it affects the shapes of galaxies and the large scale structure of the cosmos. [00:10:00] And people have been presuming, oh, so there’s this particle that we can’t see, but there are lots of theories out there that would produce such particles, but there’s people saying, well, why, you know, why should we assume that it’s just one particle?
I mean, look at the luminous universe. I mean, we’ve got dozens of particles. We’ve got living creatures, you know, I mean the dark, the dark side as they call it, is, you know, is bigger than the light side. So who knows what can be going on there?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: This is what gets me, um, about stories like these and why I’m so fascinated with them and why we wanted to talk to you. It’s just, you know, on, on the one hand, we keep coming up with models, like the standard model that stand for for decades. Um, and then one tiny little fluctuation pops up and all of a sudden we’re like, ah, we might not know anything. And, um, I guess I just, I always [00:11:00] wonder how far we are away from being able to figure out just how much we don’t know if that makes sense and how we’d even determine that?
Dennis Overby:: I think, well, I’m a great apostle of what I call cosmic ignorance because I don’t think we know very much about the universe at all. We’re just, uh, blindly, uh, mumbling along and, uh, what we know is interesting. Um, and we know how to do a lot, but who knows? What’s what else is out there that we, we don’t know.
Um, there’s been various times in the history of science when people thought, yeah, we know it all just to have to measure things to the dec-, dec- decimal point or something like that was a common theme around 1900, but then what happened then? Well, this German named Max Planck tried to calculate how heated bodies radiate. And he couldn’t do it. I mean, he had to, he had to add a little factoid that he didn’t understand his [00:12:00] calculations and that became quantum theory. So there are these times when we think, Oh, we almost got it. And we actually find out, we don’t know anything because of there’s some little thing that just doesn’t fit someplace.
And some very persistent person comes along and says, well, I’m going to, I’m going to pay attention to this. I’m not going to sweep it under the rug. And. And all this amazing stuff comes out. So I don’t think we’re anywhere near the end of that. And I think the other thought I was going to have is that, you know, it wouldn’t be a very interesting universe if we could have figured it all out in a couple of thousand years.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Dennis Overby: Give the cosmos some respect, you know.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: [Laughs] When you talk to people, um, in the scientific community about this discovery, you know, and, and you mentioned earlier that the standard model allows us to make the computers and the technology that we have, if we did find another particle or even more particles down the road, what kinds of stuff could that make [00:13:00] possible? You know, I’m not obviously asking for specifics cause we don’t even know what those particles are, but how, how has our ability to create advanced technology changed as we’ve figured out more and more, uh, of particle theory and physics?
Dennis Overby: Yeah, it’s certainly true that in the last 30, 40 years, the building of giant particle accelerators and colliders has required technology that then spread into the medical community. And I mean, we have all kinds of things now, MRI machines and pet scans. And, uh, that we wouldn’t- that we didn’t have and all of these are kind of a by-product of, of high energy physics research because they’re pushing, I mean, they’re always pushing the limits of technology to build giant magnets for their colliders are more and more sensitive and novel detectors. I’d be just as happy if it didn’t spill out in the forms of some kind of new weapon. Cause I think we’ve got, [00:14:00] we’re as weaponized as we can be already.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings:: Yeah.
Dennis Overby: It’s probably not likely, but, uh, better computers, quantum computers, for example.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And the people, um, who are more skeptical about this news, um, just to close with, when they say they’re skeptical, what do they think that we’re missing or not missing?
Dennis Overby: Okay, so there’s a, there’s a measure that scientists use that you use to kind of estimate how true their results might be.
It goes to sort of terms of what, what are the chances that something you did was just a fluke. So the gold standard for a physics experiment is that it has to be three parts in 10 million is if you did this experiment 10 million times, you’d get this answer three times. That’s- people think that’s probably pretty unlikely.
So this experiment that we just talked about, it’s something called 4-sigma. So there’s one chance in [00:15:00] 40,000 that it’s wrong. That might sound pretty good. Um, But it’s not good enough because scientists have seen, I’ve seen in my career, signals that were this strong, that then with more data, they went away.
So people and I, and I’ve heard from people in the last few days, but you know, they’re saying, yeah, this will go away too. You know, they’re not ready to, not everybody’s ready to sign on. Scientists are paid to doubt and be skeptical and to criticize each other and argue with each other. So. So that’s going on, on both sides now.
So it’ll be a fun ride. And who knows? What’s at the other end.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It’s good to have, uh, some mystery in the world.
Dennis Overby: It’s the most important thing, you need mystery.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Thank you so much, Dennis, for explaining this to me, I feel like I really understand it a lot better now.
Dennis Overby: Well, thank you. It was fun to be here.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Dennis Overby, a science reporter at the New York Times. [00:16:00] That was The Big Story, for more from us, yes, we will have lots more COVID I am sure, and I can’t wait until we don’t, but you can find it all at thebigstorypodcast.ca, you can talk to us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN, you can find us as always in your favourite podcast player, Apple or Stitcher or Google or Spotify, you can ask your favourite personal assistant device to play The Big Story Podcast. We’ve made sure those work for you. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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