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Proton's radius revised downward

Surprise measurement may point to new physics

By
7:34pm, January 24, 2013

Only in physics can a few quintillionths of a meter be cause for uneasy excitement. A new measurement finds that the proton is about 4 percent smaller than previous experiments suggest. The study, published in the Jan. 25 issue of Science, has physicists cautiously optimistic that the discrepancy between experiments will lead to the discovery of new particles or forces.

“Poking at small effects you can’t explain can be a way of unraveling a much bigger piece of physics,” says Carl Carlson, a theoretical physicist at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who was not involved in the study. “And this case is particularly intriguing.”

For years, physicists have used two indirect methods to determine the size of the proton. (Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a subatomic ruler.) They can fire an electron beam at protons and measure how far the flying particles get deflected. Alternatively, physicists can study

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