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Science

The Proton Just Got Smaller 289

Posted by samzenpus
from the size-does-matter dept.
inflame writes "A new paper published in Nature has said that the proton may be smaller than we previously thought. The article states 'The difference is so infinitesimal that it might defy belief that anyone, even physicists, would care. But the new measurements could mean that there is a gap in existing theories of quantum mechanics. "It's a very serious discrepancy," says Ingo Sick, a physicist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, who has tried to reconcile the finding with four decades of previous measurements. "There is really something seriously wrong someplace."' Would this indicate new physics if proven?"
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The Proton Just Got Smaller

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  • Ummm... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Monkeedude1212 (1560403) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:06PM (#32841024) Journal

    "'The difference is so infinitesimal that it might defy belief that anyone, even physicists, would care"

    Does this sentence bother any one else? Just me?

  • Re:Ummm... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Securityemo (1407943) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:11PM (#32841108) Journal
    Most people live in the world of senses, not the gulfs between the stars or in the mathematical models we've scrounged together to explain the eldritch abomination we call "reality". Rewrite it as "The difference is so infinitesmal that it's amazing we've come so far as to care about it." Happy?
  • by l2718 (514756) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:13PM (#32841132)

    In fact, the correction is about 2% (from 0.8768(69) fm to 0.84184(67)fm; one femtometer is 10^{-15} metres). Yes, the absolute magnitude of the difference is small compared to everyday things, but that's meaningless. More importantly, this difference is more than 5 standard deviations, so this is unlikely to have happened by chance.

  • Re:Ummm... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:16PM (#32841188)
    According to the article the difference is 4%. How is that small? I'm not even a physicist and that seems like a pretty huge difference to me.
  • by thue (121682) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:25PM (#32841314) Homepage

    > 4% sure does seem significant. But more interesting is that the measurement is thought to be much more precise because of the method of measurement.

    No. The interesting thing is that the proton size is now shown to be different than expected from theory. Which means that the theory is wrong. Which is the first step in exciting new physics.

  • Re:Ummm... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by KiloByte (825081) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:27PM (#32841344)

    Since when do you measure SIZE in grams?

  • by jfengel (409917) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:31PM (#32841414) Homepage Journal

    And of course, there's that stupid cat-in-a-box thing...

    Not relevant in this case. The uncertainty is between two different measurements, say, mass and momentum. You don't care about the momentum in this case, so the uncertainty in the momentum can be as high as you like. (In this case they're measuring radius rather than mass, but the uncertainty principle governs many different pairs of measurements.)

    Doesn't it seem more likely that it's just not possible to get an accurate measurement with the electron -- like measuring a grape with a yardstick instead of a micrometer?

    It's more like trying to measure an watermelon with a yardstick rather than a grape. The muon is heavier by a factor of 200, so the energy levels are higher, making them easier to detect with precision. The energy levels of the electron are very small and fine, making them hard to measure with precision.

  • Re:Ummm... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bakkster (1529253) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (nam.retskkaB)> on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:37PM (#32841508)

    And thus, the reason why the % exists. It allows us to determine if a 1kg change is significant (weight of a bowling ball), insignificant (weight of the earth), of wildly significant (weight of a swallow) by giving a single digit which compares the magnitude of change to the initial value.

    In other words, 4% of a value is not an 'infinitesimal' change, even if the values of concern are generally considered to be infinitesimally small. As far as relative change, it is significant enough to care (1/25th).

  • Re:Ummm... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by mea37 (1201159) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:38PM (#32841532)

    "4% of 0.0000000000000000000000000167 grams" is still 4%. On the scale of atoms, it's a huge difference; imposing the scale of day-to-day experience by measuring it in grams is misleading. You then might as well say "the total mass of a proton doesn't matter at all" because it is a very small number of grams; calling it surprising that "even a physicist" wouldn't do that is flatly incorrect.

    Once we dismiss the mass of a proton, we might as well dismiss the mass of a neutron (which is similarly a very small number of grams). In that case I'm not sure where exactly we should say the mass of matter is accumulated, though.

    Which brings up another point: if the mass of each proton is 4% less, then the mass of all protons combined in a macroscopic lump of matter is 4% less... yet the object weighs the same as it did yesterday. Given the rather wide range of materials we've weighed, I suspect that's a little harder to explain than it sounds.

  • by Hylandr (813770) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:41PM (#32841570) Homepage
    It's more likely that our ability to measure has improved.

    You're conclusions are only going to be as accurate as your ability to weigh, or measure.

    - Dan.
  • Re:Ummm... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by prgrmr (568806) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:42PM (#32841580) Journal
    It's the author's way of saying he doesn't understand physics, and that he doesn't get why anyone else would.
  • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:43PM (#32841596)

    In other words, it's a "that's funny..." kind of moment.

    "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny...'"
        -Asimov

  • Re:Ummm... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mea37 (1201159) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:44PM (#32841606)

    ...and that's what I get for indulging the speculation of a poster who didn't RTFA, without first reading TFA myself.

    It isn't the mass they say is off. It's the size. I stand by my fundamental point though: 4% of a small number is still 4%, and applying human scale to subatomic particles is nonsense.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:46PM (#32841640)

    (0.8768-0.84184)/0.8768 = 0.03987

    Why didn't you say "about 4%"?

  • Re:Ummm... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wurp (51446) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:51PM (#32841726) Homepage

    Size is a somewhat ambiguous concept. I *think* what's been discovered to be off by 4% is the radius of the charge distribution. If that's true, then the volume is off by more than 12%.

    If the results of this experiment are accurate, it's a Big Deal.

  • by Remus Shepherd (32833) <remus@panix.com> on Thursday July 08, 2010 @12:58PM (#32841820) Homepage

    No, such a size is not defined. But it could be, if it were a useful measurement. It would have to be defined in relation to the gravitational fields in the neighborhood, which would make it around the same radius as the L1 Lagrange point. Voila, we have defined a gravitational 'size', and it can even be represented graphically. [wikipedia.org]

    Nothing exists unless someone has defined it; by the same token, anything can be defined in some way.

  • by radtea (464814) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @01:06PM (#32841932)

    But if all that checked out and you still had this discrepancy, you'd start to wonder if your ruler and your micrometer were really measuring the same units.

    The grape analogy is not a particularly good one. Consider instead a peach analogy. With an electron you're looking at it from 20 m away. With a muon from 10 cm away.

    At 10 cm you're going to be vastly more sensitive to the detailed structure of the peach. What at 20 m looked like it could be characterized adequately by a single radial parameter is now clearly a copmlex shape that doesn't even have a very sharp boundary, being covered with fuzz and all.

    By far the most likely explanation of this result is something slightly wrong with our understanding of the tails of the proton's structure function, not anything as deep as physics beyond the standard model.

    Massive neutrinos aside--as they require only the most minor tweak in the form of off-diagonal elements in the KM matrix--physics beyond the standard model is a bit like fusion power: we've been a few years away from detecting it for the past thirty years... It's gotta be out there somewhere, granted, but I'll be shocked if this experiment is the smoking gun.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 08, 2010 @01:26PM (#32842234)

    I love science, but it always seems like I know less than yesterday.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 08, 2010 @01:33PM (#32842348)

    Perhaps the used the fudge factor. Just subtract or add to any other mass in question the fudge factor of 4% as needed to get the answer everyone thinks it should be to make the theories work to ones benefit.

  • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @01:36PM (#32842396) Journal

    The journalists who write about science often use bad, confusing, or just plain nonsensical terms. But it's almost always the journalists, and you can't really fault them for dumbing down their story to appeal to the largest group of readers.

    Sure I can. Because it breaks the story, making it false. This confuses the readers further and makes the story have less value than not running the story at all. Yes I know the REAL job of newsies is to attract eyeballs to sell to advertisers. But they pay for the eyeballs by offering information, so "dumbing down" the story until it's worse-than-useless is outright fraud. (And it's a big part of why the old news media are dying.)

    English is a very expressive language. It's usually possible to come up with wording that can get the meaning across just as clearly and just about as tersely. For instance, in this case the proton didn't just "get smaller" i.e. suddenly change size. "New measurement technique finds protons unexpectedly smaller." is my first attempt - and I'm NOT an expert in such composition. News writers are SUPPOSED to be experts in this, so there's no excuse for them.

    Slashdot had an article and discussion on this - and science popularization - a few days ago.

  • Re:Ummm... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Phantom of the Opera (1867) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @01:49PM (#32842560) Homepage
    Indeed. We like to think of a solid thing as the opposite of empty space, but is the solid volume merely the place where fields have the greatest probability of interaction? Are there really solid things out there that exist the way we think of them?
  • Re:Ummm... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by colinrichardday (768814) <colin.day.6@hotmail.com> on Thursday July 08, 2010 @03:35PM (#32843702)

    Are there really solid things out there that exist the way we think of them?

    The way I think about solidity, yes, many everyday objects, such as the table I am typing this on, are solid.

  • Re:Ummm... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by camperdave (969942) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @03:43PM (#32843790) Journal
    Of course, you'll have to remind me why I bothered only to invest a penny in the first place.

    Lunch at Milliways?
  • Re:Ummm... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mea37 (1201159) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @04:52PM (#32844480)

    If your lamp is emitting protons, I recommend staying away from it.

  • by lgw (121541) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @06:16PM (#32845280) Journal

    This is, in fact, usually true. As the saying goes, "The more you know, the more you know you don't know." If you picture the sum of all knowledge as a rectangle and the sum of your knowledge as a circle inside that rectangle, the boundary of that circle represents what you know that you don't know. As the circle grows, so does the boundary and your awareness of how little we actually understand. Sorry for the long-winded exposition on your comment; I just find that concept fascinating

    My high school physics would quote Fitzhenry: "the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreling of mystery".

  • Re:Ummm... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Tynin (634655) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @11:35PM (#32847384)

    Are there really solid things out there that exist the way we think of them?

    The way I think about solidity, yes, many everyday objects, such as the table I am typing this on, are solid.

    The guy who can be considered the father of quantum theory disagrees with you. Here is a quote from Max Plank on just this topic:
    --
    As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.
    --

    As a side note for hundreds of years we were trying to better understand the nature of Saturn's rings, why they were stable and didn't rip apart or fall to Saturn. At the time many speculated they were likely either big solid circular rings or liquid rings, but the math never could back that up. Along came James Maxwell who found that though the rings appear as as a solid continuous object it must be made of small particles that each orbit Saturn independently and ~130 years later we proved he was correct.

    To answer Phantom of the Opera's question, my opinion is that no I do not think their are any really solid things in existence. What we conceive to be solid is just an illusion created much like the distance between Earth and Saturn makes the rings look solid. But then again, who knows what we'll find if we keep looking... the Universe has a way of surprising us.

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