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The mysterious muon could point physicists to a scientific revolution

Dallas Morning News

Originally Posted: June 13, 2021

One of my favorite quotes about science comes not from a practicing scientist but from a comedian, Dara O’Briain. He brilliantly summarized the whole point of science and how it makes progress: “Science knows it doesn’t know everything, otherwise it would just stop.”

Physicists, those scientists who study energy, matter, space and time, have just discovered a vast gap in their knowledge thanks to the unpredictable behavior of the tiniest-of-tiny particles, the muon. And if history is repeated, the new generation of physicists will discover pathbreaking ideas that could lead to revolutionary technology.

Like all science, physics advances because scientists come to know what they don’t know. A great example of this happened at the end of the 19th century. At that time, the physical science community was riding high on the many successes of Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, forces and gravity, as well as the newly discovered laws of heat and electricity and magnetism. Many practicing physical scientists were convinced that the end of physics was in sight, that all questions would soon be answered, all of nature completely understood even down to the atoms that were assumed to make up everything in the cosmos.

There were just a few loose ends. Light and atoms didn’t quite behave as expected. Dedicated experiments revealed that light didn’t follow some of the precepts of Newton’s laws of motion. Other experiments showed that atoms didn’t emit all possible forms of light as was expected from the laws of motion, electricity and magnetism.

It was these small problems, seemingly esoteric misunderstandings about tiny things, that turned out to be explicable only by big breakthroughs, discoveries that changed our entire view of the universe. Those breakthroughs have famous names, like Albert Einstein’s relativity (a better description of motion and gravity than Isaac Newton could have conceived) and quantum physics (the recognition that at its smallest scales the universe prefers to be described as wave-like and probabilistic).

Only by inventing and applying whole new branches of mathematics to complement an arsenal of novel investigative methods could the observed behavior of light and atoms be reconciled with our understanding of physical law. These discoveries, in turn, initiated a century-long technological revolution that birthed modern electronics, telecommunications and non-invasive medicine. Societies are now largely built on the answers to questions like: Why do light and atoms behave as observed? READ MORE