Why Congress Should Care About the Laws of Physics

The most extraordinary event of the year — and perhaps the 21st century — made few national headlines. But it may just alter the future of the human race, and it should lead both parties in Congress to support a major investment increase in the nation’s research and development infrastructure.

The event happened in Batavia, Illinois, about 35 miles west of Chicago, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Rarely does a single experiment threaten to upend the known laws of the universe. But so it was on April 7, when a group of more than 200 physicists published a paper with a deceptively modest title: “Measurement of the Positive Muon Anomalous Magnetic Moment to 0.46 ppm.”

The anomaly in question could be a momentous one. Starting in 2018, researchers measured how subatomic particles called muons — heavier, more transient cousins of electrons — interacted with a strong magnetic field. They found that the muons’ “precesses,” or wobbles, differed from what the reigning Standard Model of physics would predict, and seemed to cohere with a similar deviation detected in 2001.

If accurate, those results would indicate that some previously unknown force or particle is acting on the muons — and suggest that the Standard Model, which physicists have relied on for half a century, could have a significant problem.

Why does this matter to anyone besides physicists — and those who dropped physics as a college major, like I did? (There was a German language requirement — I lasted three days.) Well, for starters, it might hold the key to explaining the deepest mysteries of the universe. It could also help elucidate the nature of dark matter, inform new quantum-mechanical models, or even shed light on perhaps the biggest quandary of all: Why is there something rather than nothing? As a group of eminent particle physicists once put it, the quest to understand such questions is “a defining characteristic of the human spirit.”

The question is: Can the human spirit triumph over partisanship in Washington?

To know whether the results of the experiment are earthshaking or a fluke — there’s about a one in 40,000 chance of the latter — more study is needed, and that requires funding. The team has collected only about 6% of the data it intends to, while dozens of papers have already been submitted to scientific journals offering varying interpretations of the results.

More broadly, the physicists’ work underscores the importance of long-term federal investment. The Fermilab results were more than 20 years in the making, and relied on facilities that had been built decades previously. That kind of open-ended commitment is what can lead to unexpected breakthroughs.

Unfortunately, federal funding for core research and technology in high-energy physics has fallen from $361 million in 2014 to $316 million last year. It’s vital that Congress boost funding for the future — and President Joe Biden’s proposal to invest $40 billion to upgrade federal labs is on the right track.

If the Fermilab results are borne out, it would also strengthen the case for investing in new collider technology. Plans are already underway to replace Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, the biggest and highest-energy accelerator yet made. Other next-generation colliders are in the works elsewhere. Congress should heed the lessons of the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas, which Democrats and Republicans joined forces to kill in 1993 — a shortsighted decision that looks worse with each passing year. To continue leading the field, U.S. scientists will need strong and sustained funding support from Congress.

Of course, skeptics will ask why taxpayers should fund such esoteric work. One answer is that these investments have benefits well beyond the lab. They help build a highly skilled and versatile workforce, invigorate academic research, inspire young people to enter the sciences, encourage collaboration and innovation, and lead to advances in everything from medicine to computing to engineering. And then there’s also the small matter of its potential to explain the universe.

If nothing else, the Fermilab experiment should be a reminder that that quest for understanding is far from over. The particles encompassed by the Standard Model make up only about 5% of the universe. Vast mysteries remain to be solved. The race is on. Our scientists are ready. Is Congress?

Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, and UN Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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