Shrunken proton baffles scientists

Posted by M ws On Sunday, January 27, 2013 0 comments

One of the Universe's most common particles has left physicists completely stumped. The proton, a fundamental constituent of the atomic nucleus, seems to be smaller than thought. And despite three years of careful analysis and reanalysis of numerous experiments, nobody can figure out why.

An experiment published today in Science1 only deepens the mystery, says Ingo Sick, a physicist at the University of Basel in Switzerland. "Many people have tried, but none has been successful at elucidating the discrepancy."

The proton's problems started in 2010, when a paper published in Nature seemed to show that the particle was 4% smaller than originally thought2. Researchers began with a target of hydrogen, an atom that consists of one proton and one electron. When they bombarded the hydrogen with muons — heavier cousins of electrons — from a particle accelerator, a muon would occasionally replace an electron. Probing the muonic hydrogen with a laser yielded a high-precision measurement of the proton's size. The problem is that the measurement differed from those obtained by two other methods by 4%, or 0.03 femtometres (fm). That's a tiny amount — 1 fm is 0.000000000001 millimetre — but is still significantly larger than the error bars on either of the other measurements3, 4.

The latest experiment also used muonic hydrogen, but probed a different set of energy levels in the atom. It yielded the same result as the Nature paper — a proton radius of 0.84 fm, says Aldo Antognini, a physicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich in Switzerland and an author of both muonic papers1, 2. The second measurement "is totally compatible with the previous value," he says.

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