Feature News

North Central students and faculty take part in Fermilab experiment that could “upend the known laws of physics”

Jeremy Borling

Jul 30, 2021

The science world was buzzing last spring with news of a breakthrough discovery. The New York Times declared that the findings out of Batavia, Ill.-based Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory might “upend the known laws of physics,” and Slate suggested it “could change how we understand the universe.”

The excitement was surrounding Fermilab’s Muon g-2 experiment, which found that fundamental particles called muons (pronounced “meew-ons”)—a more massive cousin of the electron—were behaving in a manner inconsistent with the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which is science’s best-known theory of the universe’s fundamental building blocks.

According to Fermilab’s official press announcement, the discovery “hints at exciting new physics,” explaining that “muons act as a window into the subatomic world and could be interacting with yet undiscovered particles or forces.”

The Muon g-2 experiment, which began collecting data in 2018 and is ongoing (the reported findings in April 2021 were from analysis of the first “run” of data, with up to five runs planned), is a collaboration among more than 200 scientists from 35 institutions across seven countries.

This group of international researchers includes some familiar names on the North Central College campus, including Associate Professor of Physics Paul Bloom, and Mandy Kiburg, adjunct assistant professor of physics and manager at the Fermilab Test Beam Facility. In addition, Ruth Van De Water, visiting associate professor of physics and a scientist at Fermilab, works on the associated g-2 Theory Initiative, which helps refine the Muon g-2 experiment’s calculations so the results can be compared to the Standard Model prediction.

The connections don’t stop there. Several North Central graduates have been or are currently involved in the project. Alums Jake Harper ’20 and Nathan Ruffati ’18, who worked with Bloom on the project as undergrads in 2017, as well as Judah O’Neil ’20 and Gilberto Perez ’12, are all full-time accelerator operators at Fermilab. Tyler Weitzel ‘19, Darryl Watkins ‘20 and Axel Ponten ’20 used their experience at Fermilab to help propel them into prestigious doctoral programs at Michigan State University, University of Michigan and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland, respectively. Current students Andrew Bird, Matthew Nealon, Bryan Orea and Dylan Combs are logging time this summer alongside Bloom.

The day-to-day work of being a physicist can be painstaking, as noteworthy discoveries are rare and often years in the making. Even then, as in the case of the muon, a major breakthrough might amount to a tiny, subatomic “wobble.” But the significance is not lost on those doing the work.

“I get to do my part to expand the boundaries of human knowledge of the universe. How can you not say ‘Wow’ to that?” Bloom told the Naperville Sun.

Bloom’s part in the experiment, which he described as the result of “lots of people doing their own little thing,” involved creating an apparatus that maps part of the magnetic field as muons circulate—at nearly the speed of light—through a magnetic storage ring.

Bloom came up with the concept for the mapping instrument, then worked with Frank Harwath, professor of engineering and director of North Central’s engineering programs, to design it, and several students helped construct it.

That spirit of hands-on, interdisciplinary collaboration is at the heart of a North Central College education.

“Having Frank there meant I could really go after this project with an experienced engineer,” said Bloom. “The best work happens when physicists, engineers and technicians collaborate and listen to one another.”

After helping build the apparatus, Watkins and other students logged numerous hours at Fermilab running quality control and conducting data analysis.

“There’s so much that goes into it, but there is a small connection; there’s a little part of me in it,” Watkins told the Naperville Sun. “I’m thankful I had a chance to be part of this.”

If the initial results of the experiment hold up, Watkins added, “it will be the future of physics.”

The experiment is far from over, but if subsequent runs of data confirm that muons are indeed behaving in a way that belies the Standard Model, “We could be talking Nobel Prize big deal,” Bloom said.

It can be difficult to comprehend how something seemingly so small can have such a big impact on our understanding of the universe. But that’s particle physics.

“A century ago, quantum mechanics was being developed to describe the most basic behaviors of atoms,” explained Bloom. “That understanding is now so successful that we use it to design advanced materials from the atom up. Those materials are at the heart of the most powerful computers and even high-efficiency LED lightbulbs that are rapidly becoming our main source of lighting.”

Bloom continued: “The most human thing is to try to understand the universe we live in. It’s part of the fundamental process of being curious about our world and where we fit in. This experiment is an indicator that we’re about to advance our knowledge.”

After the COVID-19 pandemic derailed much of the work that would have otherwise taken place at Fermilab over the past year, Bloom is back in the lab this summer and able to resume his part in the Muon g-2 experiment. He’s joined by a new crop of North Central students who will get to their chance to be a part of history.