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Measuring Muons

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports on a possible wrinkle in the space-time continuum. Really. Physicists measuring the fundamental characteristics of a subatomic particle, the muon, have come up with some very puzzling results that could punch a hole in the long-standing "standard model" of how matter is put together. And that could help usher in a completely new theory of matter, time and space. Unless, of course, some scientist has made a mistake. (4:30)

(It was later revealed this was a mistake:

"Well, I would say I'm responsible for the mistake. My collaborator did most of the work, but I am equally guilty of making mistakes." Toichiro Kinoshita, a physicist at Princeton University.

Kinoshita's sin was to have a minus sign where he should have had a plus or maybe the other way around. He can't quite remember, though it ended up having gigantic consequences. Kinoshita and his colleague were calculating how a particular subatomic particle behaves when it's stuck in a magnetic field. The particle, it turns out, wobbles like a toy top at a particular frequency. Kinoshita enlisted hundreds of computers and, after a decade of heroic work, had precisely predicted how fast it should wobble according to the laws of physics.

Last winter, other physicists who were out measuring the wobble found it differed significantly from Kinoshita's prediction. In the clockwork world of physics, this was potentially a huge finding, signaling something new and mysterious, except that it wasn't. Kinoshita traced his error to a tiny quirk in a computer program he was using. He hadn't checked that bit, in part because other physicists using a different approach had gotten the same answer."

Copyright 2001 NPR