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NIU scientists embark on big experiment into tiny particle

A 50-foot-wide circular electromagnet, the Muon g-2, is moved onto the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory campus near Batavia last summer.
A 50-foot-wide circular electromagnet, the Muon g-2, is moved onto the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory campus near Batavia last summer.

Mary Shenk thought helping to solve an unexplained phenomenon about life’s basic building blocks seemed like the best way to spend her summer.

Shenk, a 33-year-old Northern Illinois University graduate student, is one of more than a dozen NIU students and faculty members working at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory on a high-profile experiment centered around a 17-ton magnet and a mysterious subatomic particle.

“The results we get from this will help to discover new particle physics and discover new things about the universe,” Shenk said.

The Muon g-2 experiment will study the elusive muon and its interaction with magnetic fields. Scientists believe the experiment could lead to the discovery of new particles or hidden subatomic forces.

The 50-foot-wide circular electromagnet that made a 3,200-mile journey from Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York last summer will be the centerpiece of the Muon g-2 experiment. Workers completed the final leg of the magnet’s journey Wednesday, moving it into a building where the experiment will happen in 2016.

Muons are a heavier version of electrons, wobbling like a spinning top.

Scientists know why muons wobble, but the way they wobble remains a mystery. A study done by Brookhaven scientists in 2001 showed the muons’ wobble didn’t match what was predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics, which covers how fundamental particle make up the matter in the universe.

The Fermilab experiment will have four times the precision of the Brookhaven experiment.

“It has the possibility to re-write the textbook,” said Mike Eads, an assistant professor of physics, who has led NIU’s Muon g-2 contingent since it started two years ago. “It can tell us the standard model is not enough, that it’s incomplete.”

A better understanding of the muon could lead to a better understanding of the other basic building blocks of nature, Eads added.

“If you understand the universe and everything around this, then that’s a good thing,” he said.

One of NIU’s main roles in the experiment will be quality control testing for a complex straw-tube tester, a type of particle detector being built in Liverpool, England. The device detects particles known as positrons, which result from the decay of muons.

Aaron Epps, 34, who lives in DeKalb, starting working on the project two years ago. A graduate student in physics, Epps designed, coded and tested methods to measure tension on the wires that will be used in the quality control tests. He now is learning simulation software and plans to stay with the experiment until it’s complete.

“While we’re not trying to build a new product, we’re really probing fundamentally how the universe works,” Epps said.

Shenk, a physics major living in DeKalb, is working a simulation that will help determine the best way to set up the experiment. She plans to work at Fermilab among scientists from 26 institutions across the world through the coming school year and next summer.

Michael McEvoy, 24, of St. Charles has spent the summer before he starts his second year of graduate school preparing for the experiment. McEvoy is part of a group working on slow controls, or long-term data temperature, pressure and other properties of the machine.

The group is still designing the right system and types of sensors that will be placed on the magnet.

What the experiment will mean to people who aren’t apt at solving a particle physics puzzle won’t be clear immediately after the experiment and all data collection is done close to 2020, scientists said. But they said without hesitation it will leave an impression on the world.

“The regular, average person won’t see right away,” McEvoy said. “But what comes from our research will be very important. The second generation of research will lead to new innovation.”

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