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What Is the Universe Made Of? A Local Professor is on the Fermilab Team Trying to Find Out

“The whole of the field of high-energy physics is about asking one big question,” explained Dr. Paul Bloom. “Which is ‘what are the fundamental constituents of matter and how do they interact with each other?’”

For decades, the scientific community’s answer to that question was the Standard Model. But a recent study at Fermilab in nearby Batavia has the potential to upend what we thought we knew about the makeup of the universe.

Bloom is an Associate Professor of Physics at North Central College, but is one of many physicists working on the study in which the team is observing how particles called muons behave when shot through intense electromagnetic fields. The results, Bloom says, show that the Standard Model “can’t be the end of the story.”

The Fermilab Experiment

“Most people think about [muons] as a tiny little spinning ball of electric charge, and because it’s spinning, it generates its own magnetic field,” said Bloom.

He explained that measuring the behavior of muons and comparing the data to what the Standard Model dictates should happen can show if there are unknown forces or particles causing the irregularities.

“Nature is right. The experiment is telling us the right answer,” said Bloom. “If we see a discrepancy between what nature is telling us and what we calculate, that’s an indicator that something is left out of our calculations.”

Confirming Prior Studies

Fermilab’s experiment isn’t entirely a new discovery, rather, it confirms a similar study from Brookhaven National Laboratories in 2001. Lacking funding to repeat the experiment, for 20 years, the scientific community was left on a cliffhanger with the potential to redefine how humans understand the universe.

With about six percent of Fermilab’s data from the experiment now analyzed, it appears that the measurements taken at Brookhaven were not inaccurate. Bloom said there’s less than a 1-in-40,000 chance of these results being a fluke, which is short of the bar physicists set for statistical certainty (about 1-in-3,500,000), but still very likely.

Possible Errors?

It’s possible there is a flaw in the experimental method undertaken in both the Fermilab and Brookhaven experiments. Or there could be a problem with how scientists are interpreting the data. But Bloom said the most likely possibility is still that there really is a mismatch between the results of these experiments and the Standard Model.

“Once we finish analyzing this data, then we find out that we’ve shrunk the error bars enough to the point where now it’s conclusive. That would tell us we’ve definitely got an indicator there is something new going on.”

On the Cutting Edge

Working on the cutting edge of science is something Bloom has had a passion for his entire career.

“It’s one of the things that energizes you to say ‘Wow, I’m doing something where we’re actually learning something new,’” he said.

Bloom also involved his students in the study. They helped build an apparatus to detect the magnetic field of particles that leave the observable area. He said that real-world lab experience was invaluable to young scientists.


Some of the equipment Bloom’s students worked with at Fermilab. Photo Credit: Dr. Paul Bloom

It will take at least through 2022 to finish analyzing the data produced in the Fermilab study. But to Bloom and other physicists involved in the experiment, being on the cutting edge of scientific discovery is worth the arduous work.

“There’s a reason that humans do science and it’s the same reason that we look at the sky, it’s the same reason that we create art and literature,” said Bloom. “Because in the end, what we’re doing is we’re exploring the universe and we’re exploring ourselves. We’re trying to figure out what does it mean to be ‘us’? What does it mean to be human? What is the universe? Who are we? And to answer these questions, we need to know as much as we can.”

Naperville News 17’s Casey Krajewski reports.


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Featured photo credit: Reidar Hahn, Fermilab


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