Kentucky group part of landmark physics experiment few people — even physicists — fully understand

Published 6:45 am Saturday, April 24, 2021

On a February Zoom call, a team of University of Kentucky professors held their breath alongside hundreds of their colleagues across the country, waiting to find out the results of three years of work.

When the moment of truth came there was first silence “then it just erupted,” said Renee Fatemi, a UK professor of physics. It was of course only as loud as you can get on Zoom, but it did little to dampen the significance.

“Everybody’s on mute, of course, on Zoom, but I think everybody in their own homes was shouting, and it was just amazing,” said Tim Gorringe, also a UK physics professor.

Those on that Zoom were all a part of a large-scale physics experiment at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Batavia, Ill. The experiment is designed to reproduce another study from 2001 in a more accurate and more modern manner. The results of the original experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory pushed the limits of physics’ best-known theories about the building blocks of the universe. The early returns of the recent Fermilab experiment are consistent with Brookhaven’s findings, grabbing national headlines in the process.

“For two decades, people have been wondering was the Brookhaven measurement, right? Was it a fluke?,” Fatemi said.

The results of both experiments point to a potential gap in the Standard Model of physics — essentially a compilation of the best theory explaining the nuances of the particles and forces of the universe. According to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the model “has successfully explained almost all experimental results and precisely predicted a wide variety of phenomena.”

The findings at Fermilab and Brookhaven suggest that the model is incomplete and that there’s still much to be learned in the subatomic world. Brad Plaster, also a physics professor at UK, said the experiments “could point to a gap in our knowledge.”