Particle Behavior Disobeys Laws Of Physics As We Know Them

12:16 minutes

a look from above at a large blue circular lab equipment, the accelerator, in a warehouse-looking laboratory
First results from the Muon g-2 experiment at Fermilab have strengthened evidence of new physics. The centerpiece of the experiment is a 50-foot-diameter superconducting magnetic storage ring, which sits in its detector hall amidst electronics racks, the muon beamline, and other equipment. This impressive experiment operates at negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit and studies the precession (or wobble) of muons as they travel through the magnetic field. Credit: Reidar Hahn/Fermilab

Physicists have confirmed the unexplainable behavior of an elementary particle first noticed 20 years ago. Experiments at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, showed that a certain subatomic particle, called a muon, disobeys the laws of physics as scientists have written them. This is a big deal for scientists in a field where much is still unknown. 

Plus, our hotter Earth will officially become the new normal next month. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will release its once-a-decade update to “climate normals”, baseline temperatures meteorologists rely on for their forecasts. While some places won’t see much of a change, this new update will substantially change what’s “normal” across the coasts and in the southern U.S.

Joining Ira to talk about these science stories and other big news of the week is Roxanne Khamsi, science journalist based in Montreal, Quebec.


**Editor’s Note: When this story aired, we incorrectly referred to Astronaut Scott Kelly as the twin brother who is also serving in the US Senate. Senator Mark Kelly is the former astronaut and retired U.S. Navy captain serving as the junior United States Senator from Arizona since 2020.**

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Segment Guests

Roxanne Khamsi

Roxanne Khamsi is a science writer based in Montreal, Quebec.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’ll explore long haul COVID, people suffering with symptoms like exhaustion, loss of taste, and neurological conditions, suffering for months after diagnosis a bit later.

But first, physicists have confirmed an unexplainable behavior of an elementary particle first noticed 20 years ago. Experiments at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, showed that a certain subatomic particle called a muon disobeys the laws of physics as scientists have written them. And whenever stuff appears to be breaking the law in science it’s a big deal.

Here to help explain this story and other science news of the week is my guest, Roxanne Khamsi, science journalist based in Montreal, Quebec. Welcome to Science Friday. Nice to have you back.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: It’s great to be back. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You know, Chris Polly, a physicist at Fermilab called this discovery their quote Mars Rover landing moment. So this is a big deal.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah. And what I love about this is its physicists getting excited when something is a little bit unexpected and kind of wrong per their predictions. So I think that it’s really cool in that way.

IRA FLATOW: Walk us through what actually was unexplainable.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Sure. So as you said, muons are these particles and they’re actually known as fat electrons, which I think is interesting, because they’re 200 times as massive as electrons, which is a particle a lot of people know. And what they did is that they exposed these muons to an intense magnetic field and when that happened, the muons did some wobbling like a spinning top. But they did it in a manner that wasn’t quite consistent with what the physicists had calculated would happen. So they got all excited, because there was this fluke and it could actually inform them to tell them how their equations about how the universe and matter operate are off. So it’s actually helping nudge them towards more correct equations that could explain more of the universe.

IRA FLATOW: This is the second announcement in the last two weeks. I mean, we talked about this last week on Science Friday, of a different unexplainable behavior of an elementary particle. Last week we talked about muons and electrons. Shouldn’t be surprising I guess if we don’t know what 96% of the universe is made of, dark energy and dark matter, there should be a lot of surprises out there.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: I know. I know, it makes biology look kind of stable by comparison when you talk about physics. So I mean, for sure. And I think that the statistics here matter as well, because according to these measurements there is a 1 in 40,000 chance that this was just a statistical anomaly, that it was a fluke and that it didn’t really happen in a way. And physicists are a really precise bunch, 1 in 40,000 to them is not quite sufficient to satisfy them.

IRA FLATOW: Not good enough. We need more.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: It’s not good enough. They want it to be a lower probability. So they’re going to keep pursuing this and see if they can make themselves more sure.

IRA FLATOW: All right, speaking of pursuing, let’s move on to some strange physiology news. It turns out if you participate in certain activities your heart can shrink. Tell us about that.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: It’s true. So we often think about endurance swimmers and astronauts as people who are getting stronger and more robust through these activities, but scientists, they wanted to know what would happen when astronauts go into space, because astronauts are spending obviously a lot of time there and we might end up in space more often. So they looked at Scott Kelly’s heart. And you might know Scott Kelly because he was a former astronaut and now he’s in the Senate, but he spent 340 days aboard the International Space Station, which is a really long time, it’s almost a year. So they compared his heart with that of an endurance swimmer, Benoit Lecomte.

IRA FLATOW: And what did they find?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So what they found was so interesting, so Benoit Lecomte spent a long time swimming across the Pacific Ocean. He’d hoped to cross it. So he spent between 9 and 17 hours each day swimming or sleeping, basically not subjected to gravity in the way that normally we are when we’re walking around. And they looked at his heart and they compared it to Captain Kelly’s, who was obviously floating around a lot in space. And so they were really trying to understand how gravity affects heart function. And they found that actually their hearts atrophied a little bit, which is a little sad.

IRA FLATOW: I mean that’s bad, you got to have heart as the song goes. Does the heart go back to normal after some period of time?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: It does. So they lost about 20% of the total mass in their left ventricles and what happened was and the reason for that is that over time the heart wasn’t working as hard, so the muscle kind of atrophies, kind of like my legs during this lockdown pandemic period. I definitely don’t have the leg strength I used to.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I know what you mean.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: But Ira, thankfully after they got back on terra firma, they had a rebound of their heart mass. So that’s a kind of positive outcome of the end.

IRA FLATOW: That’s good. That’s good. Let’s move on to a story that you wrote for The New York Times, called The Mysterious Aftermath of Infections. I mean, we’re going to be talking about long COVID later this hour, but in your article you say lasting effects of infections are nothing new. Where have we seen this before?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So yeah, we’ve been seeing this for a long time. In this op-ed I try to walk people through all the examples that have accumulated over the years. I don’t know if you’ve ever had strep throat.

IRA FLATOW: Oh yeah. I think just about everybody has. It’s quite common.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah. So luckily these days we have antibiotics that can treat it, but if you don’t treat strep throat it’s been known for many decades and maybe even perhaps longer, that you can have damage to your heart even after that sore throat’s gone and you feel that the acute infection has passed.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I think your valves, the heart valves I think, can get involved in this, yeah.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: I mean, all sorts of things can go wrong. And similarly with H. pylori, which is this bacteria that can infect your stomach, if that hangs around too long you can get ulcers and stomach cancer, HPV, the human papillomavirus can also cause throat cancer. And you can also get this effect after infections called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which is a paralysis. All these kinds of infections cause these aftershocks that we don’t really think about viruses as causing cancer, but they can, or bacteria as causing ulcers but all of these things are happening. So what research really has to do is figure out how these infections are causing these long term aftermath, especially as you know because of COVID we’re seeing that this isn’t just one or two infections, it’s a lot of different ones.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s a whole spectrum. As I said, we’re going to be talking about long COVID later in the hour. Let’s move on to some climate news, our weather forecasts are going to change next month. Are you forecasting that or is that what’s going to happen?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: It is actually going to happen. So the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which is also known as NOAA, it’s one of my favorite administrations because I’m a little weather obsessed myself.

So once in a decade they release what is known as their climate normals and that is basically they look at a 30 year average. So today when they are talking about their averages, they’re looking at 1981 to 2010. But come May 4th, they’re going to update that. So that they’re looking at a different 30 year period. They’re going to look at 1991 to 2020.

And that’s significant because the decade 2011 to 2020 was one of the hottest on record in the US. And globally it was the hottest decade since 1880. So all of a sudden the averages that we’re going to be comparing our current weather to is a higher average and that has all sorts of implications.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, what do you mean, give me an idea of what kind of implications we’re talking about.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Sure. So if you’re let’s say in the West Coast, which is actually one of the areas that saw substantial upward trend in temperature, your forecaster on the news is going to be saying we’re going to have a cooler than normal day, but that cooler than normal day is actually compared to a normal that’s hotter. So if they tell you it’s cooler than normal now it’s going to feel cooler than in a month from now. Does that make sense?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I do remember a few years ago, and this was exactly the kind of thing you’re talking about, it’s so hot in Australia now in the summertime that they had to add another color to their weather map, they had to add like a deep purple because the weather in Fahrenheit degrees was getting up 110 or hotter and they just didn’t know how to show that on the map, so they had to change the color of the map.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah. I mean, we’re going to have to kind of reframe our thinking in terms of what is normal. And that’s kind of a little concerning given the trends. I know there are all sorts of other things that might be harder you have to take into account. So I want to say it’s a mixed bag, but it’s more complicated than that. We’re going to have to see what it feels like to live in this new climate normal.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And one last story to talk about involves yawning and lions, what’s going on here?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, I hope that no one is yawning as they’re listening to me talk, but I find yawning perennially fascinating. All the more so because we don’t really know what’s going on when people yawn. So scientists tried to get a clue into the function of yawning by looking at lions which I think have the most glamorous yawn of any animal out there.

So over four months in 2019 they monitored 19 lions in South Africa at the greater Makalali Private Game Reserve, and they noticed that when a lion caught another yawn from a lion, they were 11 times more likely to mimic the movements of that yawning lion than if they were just hanging around a non yawning lion.

So I think what the scientists say is that this is the first time that anyone has tried to quantify how yawning helps coordinate collective behavior. So yawning might be functioning not just to look glamorous if you’re a lion, but actually to coordinate some kind of social collective behavior. I think that’s really cool.

IRA FLATOW: That is cool and it might explain or back up we say yawning is contagious right, if you’re in a group of people and one person starts to yawn then everybody seems to start to yawn. It seems to be happening with lions also.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yes. And actually as you say that, I’m thinking, thank god it’s like not harmful, because we’re talking about so many contagious things these days, but yes, like yeah, it has this potential greater function. And I think it’s really cool that lions are giving us a clue into that. I’d love to know more if other animals kind of coordinate their behavior. And this research is nothing to yawn at if you ask me.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, and maybe we can have that MGM lion now yawning at the beginning of a movie. But that may send the wrong signal I think.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yes. And what is a yawn versus a roar when you really think about it. I mean, they might be more related than we think.

IRA FLATOW: There you have it. Roxanne Khamsi, science journalist based in Montreal. Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Thanks so much. It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to take a break and when we come back, we’ll talk about how Punjabi Sikh truck drivers in California have been navigating the pandemic.

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