Physics is insane, and doesn’t always follow the laws we’ve formulated over the last several thousands of years of accrued observation and analysis. Case in point: a new study published today in Science that illustrates how the size of proton’s radius determined by its interactions with other, smaller particles can change so confusingly as to disrupt fundamental theories tied to the Standard Model and quantum mechanics. In other words, something’s fucky. Oh goodie!
See, a proton’s radius (protons reside in the nucleus of an atom, along with neutrons) changes based on any electrons that are orbiting it. Electrons cause changes in the overall charge of an atom that affect what the orbital radius will be. However, previous research has found that placing a heavier version of the electron — called a muon — in the orbit of a proton creates a really weird version of a hydrogen atom that creates a proton radius we have no model for calculating correctly. In other words, it fucks our physics shit up.
Basically, the heavy muon electron throws a wrench into the models physicists’ use to determine the structure and behavior of small particles. The new study in question basically looked to confirm there was a problem by placing a muon around the orbit of deuterium — a heavy isotope of hydrogen.
If there wasn’t a problem — i.e., if scientists traditional notions of physics and the entire framework of the universe were correct — the deuterium proton’s orbit would have reacted in a predictable, already-observed way to the muon.
Instead, yep, shit got weird. The deuterium proton’s radius became completely messed up and inconsistent in a way that researchers still can’t account for or predict.
And unfortunately, there is no way to reconcile this puzzle with current physics theories.
Ars Technica has a pretty good rundown of how the exactly the experiment works, if you’re interested in taking a look. The major takeaway, however, is that the results were outside the threshold of being a statistical error — what the research team saw was indeed an anomaly that was, well, supposed to happen. We just have no way to explain it right now.
Like all research that raises more questions than answers, the only thing we can do to solve this mystery is to run more studies and collect more measurements that could provide more clarity.
Photos via Creative Commons