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(tugger: cpl. 60; a. 10 guna)
The first Surprize, frequently spelled Surprize, was purchased at Dover, England, by agents of the American commissioners to France early in 1777 and was fitted out at Dunkirk, France. The lugger, commanded by Capt Gustavus Conyngham, departed Dunkirk on or about 1 May 1777. In the North Sea on 3 May, she captured British mail packet the Prince of Orange
and, the next day, she took brig Joseph with a cargo of wine and citrus fruit.
Forced by contrary winds and British cruisers, Conyngham returned to Dunkirk with his prizes. However, diplomatic presure prompted France-which wished to avoid a premature break with England-to confiscate the lugger and to release her prizes.
In U.S. political jargon, an October surprise is a news event that may influence the outcome of an upcoming November election (particularly one for the U.S. presidency), whether deliberately planned or spontaneously occurring. Because the date for national elections (as well as many state and local elections) is in early November, events that take place in October have greater potential to influence the decisions of prospective voters thus, relatively last-minute news stories could either change the course of an election or reinforce the inevitable.  The term "October surprise" was coined by William Casey when he served as campaign manager of Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign.  However, there were October election-upending events that predated the coining of the term.  
Our city was just one square mile of farmland back in 1938 when Flora Mae Statler founded it. So why did she call us Surprise? According to Statler&rsquos daughter Elizabeth Wusich Stoft, her mother once commented "she would be surprised if the town ever amounted to much."
We are confident that Flora Mae would indeed be surprised of how this once small town has developed and grown into the Surprise of today.
The original one square mile of farmlands still exists and is aptly called &ldquoThe Original Townsite&rdquo.
Learn more about how this once small farming community transformed into Arizona&rsquos 10th largest-city in &ldquoThe City of Surprise: A History in Progress,&rdquo a 104-page book full of photos and anecdotes, plus an accompanying DVD documentary set. The book is available for purchase at the Surprise History Project, or you can watch the video at https://surprisetv.surpriseaz.gov.
Ta-Da! Out Of The Blue: A Brief History Of The Surprise Album
The release of Solange’s new album ‘When I Get Home’ earlier this month came with almost no warning. Melding together jazz, hip-hop, R&B and electronic beats with an impressive list of collaborators, including Pharrell, Dev Hynes, Sampha, Gucci Mane, Earl Sweatshirt and more, the album came just days after the singer staged a takeover of Black Planet, a social networking platform for African-Americans that was launched in 2001, and seemed to hint at new music via a surreal clip posted to social media that mixed arty studio shots with home-video footage and a clip of a new song. But at no point was the album actually, y’know, announced, leaving fans pleasantly surprised when they woke up on 1st March with nineteen brand new tracks.
There was a time when the surprise album was almost unthinkable and a lack of pre-album publicity and distribution planning would massively affect its success. But with the turn of the 21st century came mass internet and social media usage and, with it, a way for artists to speak to their fans directly, outside of traditional communication channels. As a result of this, the surprise album has become almost commonplace over the past decade and now - rather than breaking the internet - done badly can become the equivalent of a mass eye roll. Yet, done well, it gives artists breathing space to really make an impact and retain control over the way their music is released, pre-empting album leaks and taking their album out of the pre-album press cycle to let the music speak for itself.
Here, we run through some of the most memorable surprises of recent years.
Reviews / Album
Solange – When I Get Home
When she talks, you listen.
The surprise album may not be all that surprising in 2019, but cast your mind back twelve years to 2007 when Radiohead released their seventh album ‘In Rainbows’ as a ‘pay what you want download’. Previously the domain of small, bedroom projects on Bandcamp, Radiohead’s decision to release the album with no set price (fans could download the MP3 album for any amount of money pledged, including £0, making it free) was an industry first for such a large artist. Add that to the fact that it was announced just ten days before its release via the band’s blog, with little else in the way of announcement or publicity, and the whole thing came as a pretty unexpected move.
Colin Greenwood later explained the release was an attempt to avoid the “regulated playlists” and “straitened formats” of radio and TV and to ensure that listeners around the world would receive the music all at the same time and experience it as a collective moment, sidestepping the common occurrence of entire albums being leaked online months before they arrived in stores and the record being received in a fragmented way. Though this sudden mass-listening experience is pretty normal in the omnipresent streaming age we now live in, in 2007 it was something entirely new.
But the internet hasn’t just changed the manner in which we receive albums, but how we experience them entirely. Long gone are the days when music videos premiered on MTV and you’d have to wait by the TV for your favourite to play. Entire albums can now be visual, something revolutionised by Beyonce’s fifth self-titled album, released in 2013 each song having its own video and being released all at once.
“I feel like right now people experience music differently. I miss that immersive experience,” Beyonce explained at the time. “Now people only listen to a few seconds of a song on their iPods. They don’t really invest in the whole album. I felt like I didn’t want anyone to give the message that my album is coming out, I just wanted it [to go out] when it’s ready, from me to my fans.”
It’s an idea she continued with the surprise release of ‘Lemonade’ three years later, which also arrived alongside a sixty-five-minute film of the same name, pushing the idea of the ‘visual album as event’ in a more innovative direction.
Mind, not all surprise albums have pushed culture in new and exciting directions in quite the way they intended. Perhaps the winner of the ‘most annoying surprise album ever’ award goes to U2 with their thirteenth album ‘Songs Of Innocence’.
Now a legendary cautionary tale on how not to market your album, when the band released the album in 2014, Apple handed out a free copy of the album to everyone with an iTunes account - whether they wanted it or not - forcing half a billion people to receive a copy. It’s not the first time the band had joined up with Apple for a marketing campaign (a decade earlier, in 2004 and 2006, the band released special edition iPods with the tech giant) but it was the first time such a collaboration caused mass uproar, with the forced download of the album to users’ carefully created iTunes libraries being seen my many to be an intrusion of a private space. The press were equally as annoyed, describing the giveaway as "devious", "worse than spam” and a “simple demonstration of privilege”. It even made them, according to Salon, “the most hated band in America”. A week later, by way of an apology of sorts, Apple gave users the option to delete the album permanently from their libraries.
Bono, meanwhile, didn’t really apologise much for the fiasco, but did have this delightful anecdote to offer: "We wanted to deliver a pint of milk to people's front porches, but in a few cases it ended up in their fridge, on their cereal. People were like, 'I'm dairy-free’,” he noted. Ok, then.
Either way, the following year Apple Music and TIDAL launched, and streaming became the de facto way of experiencing new music. But in a moment where digital ownership of music was a way of life, it turned out too much of a free thing was not necessarily a good thing.
Some artists release their albums as a ‘surprise’ in an attempt to make an artistic statement others are forced to after someone decides to spoil everyone’s fun. That’s what happened to Björk in 2015 with the release of 'Vulnicura'. Originally planned for a release later that year, on 18th January - two months ahead of its intended release and just days after being announced - the entire album was leaked online.
You'd assume an artist has a few options in a situation like this. You either a) hunt that no-do-gooder down and have them arrested (see: Madonna, circa 2015) b) publicly state your hate and distrust for leak-ers via a dramatic social media meltdown (see: Lady Gaga tweeting after her song ‘Applause’ leaked in 2013: “Lord, in HEAVEN WHY. YOU JUST COULDNT WAIT THIS IS TOO MUCH FOR ONE SATURDAY. Wanna grab some shovels and fuck up some hackers?”) or, c) you do a Björk and own the entire thing.
“In my situation, I had one thing going for me – the album was mastered and ready. I don’t know how I would have reacted if it was four months before. It might have been messier….” she explained at the time. “And I think also, because of the nature of the album for me emotionally, it’s the sort of subject matter where I really wanted to just get it out of the way, over and done with it. My gut reaction was immediately like that. It was an immediate album, and I did it so quickly, and it was like ‘Oh, it’s leaked, let’s just put it out.'”
But it’s not just the wannabe innovators and new-er kids using surprise albums as a tool to dramatically release their music, as proven by the 2013 comebacks of legends David Bowie and My Bloody Valentine.
If you’re going to return to music after a decade away, what better way to announce your return than not bothering? So went the release of David Bowie’s 2013 album ‘The Next Day’. Streaming on iTunes in its entirety days before its release and following on from the surprise release of lead single ‘Where Are We Now?’, David Bowie’s first album of new material in ten years since 2003’s ‘Reality’ came with almost no warning, at the surprise of many fans who believed the musician to be retired.
The album managed to stay such a secret, despite being almost two years in the making, due to the lengths Bowie went to to keep the record under wraps. While people involved were required to sign NDAs, they also had to change recording studios early in the process after someone started a rumour that he was recording there. Few but those close to Bowie even knew of the record's existence - a pretty impressive achievement considering he was, er, David Bowie.
But My Bloody Valentine beat even Bowie’s record of a decade-long comeback with their third album ‘m b v’, released in February 2013. Recording sessions for the album began in 1996, five years after their second studio album ‘Loveless’ was released and they'd signed to Island Records in 1992 for a reported £250,000 contract. But the album never materialised, with the band effectively breaking up and remaining inactive for a decade, despite regular rumours of a comeback.
After playing live together for the first time in sixteen years in 2008, it was then that the band began finishing work on the album they’d started so long ago. Finally, on 2nd February 2013 - a massive twenty-two years after their last record - ‘m b v’ was shared on the band’s website via their own label mbv Records, before the whole album was later streamed for free on YouTube.
Explaining the reasoning for the release, the band’s Kevin Shields told Pitchfork: “With the internet, it’s a total yin and yang: 50% good and 50% horrible. The good side is that we can release a record ourselves without doing anything [with a label]. If we put it out on a major label, we would’ve had to sell 1.5 million copies to do as well as we will have done by the end of the year. When it comes to working with major record companies in the context of them owning anything, though, that will never happen. Ever. In my life.”
also formerly surprize , late 14c., "unexpected attack or capture," from Old French surprise "a taking unawares" (13c.), from noun use of past participle of Old French sorprendre "to overtake, seize, invade" (12c.), from sur- "over" (see sur- (1)) + prendre "to take," from Latin prendere , contracted from prehendere "to grasp, seize" (from prae- "before," see pre-, + - hendere , from PIE root *ghend- "to seize, take"). Meaning "something unexpected" first recorded 1590s, that of "feeling of astonishment caused by something unexpected" is c. 1600. Meaning "fancy dish" is attested from 1708.
Surprise party originally was a stealth military detachment (1826) festive sense is attested by 1857 according to Thornton's "American Glossary," originally a gathering of members of a congregation at the house of their preacher "with the ostensible purpose of contributing provisions, &c., for his support," and sometimes called a donation party . Phrase taken by surprise is attested from 1690s.
also formerly surprize , late 14c., "overcome, overpower" (of emotions), from the noun or from Anglo-French surprise , fem. past participle of Old French surprendre (see surprise (n.)). Meaning "come upon unexpectedly" is from 1590s that of "strike with astonishment" is 1650s.
History&rsquos earliest recorded battle for which reliable details exist was The Battle of Megiddo, 1457 BC, pitting Egyptians led by Pharaoh Thutmose III, and rebellious Canaanites seeking to free themselves of Egyptian vassalage. The rebellion was centered in the city of Megiddo, at the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley, astride the main trade route between Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Thutmose marched with his army to Yaham. From there, he had to choose between three routes: a southern one via Taanach, a northern route via Yoqneam, and a central one via Aruna that would take him straight to Megiddo (see map). The southern and northern routes were longer, but safer. The central route was quicker but risky, with a passage through narrow ravines in which an army would have to advance single file, vulnerable to being bottled up front and rear.
Routes to Megiddo. History Bytes
Thutmose figured that the central route was so obviously dangerous that no reasonable commander would risk his army in its ravines. He also guessed that the rebels would leave it unguarded because they would not expect the Egyptians to court disaster by running such an obvious risk. So he chose the central route, and as he had guessed, it was unguarded. The Egyptians arrived at Megiddo sooner than expected, caught the Canaanites flat footed, and won a decisive victory that secured Egyptian hegemony over the region for centuries.
Over three millennia later, during WWI, British general Edmund Allenby, a student of ancient history, faced the same choice as Thutmose III as he led an army advancing from the south against entrenched Turks and Germans in the Jezreel Valley. He stole a march upon them and burst unexpected in front of Megiddo with an advance through the central route via Aruna.
Warplanes are among the deadliest weapons ever invented, but they are useless on the ground. That was amply demonstrated by Mivtza Moked, or Operation Focus, the code name for surprise airstrikes launched by Israel on June 5th, 1967. They destroyed the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces on the ground, and disabled their airbases at the start of the Six Day War, setting the stage for a quick Israeli victory.
The operation was an all out attack by nearly all of Israel&rsquos warplanes, which headed out westward over the Mediterranean, maintaining radio silence and flying low to evade radar, before turning south towards Egypt. The Egyptians were surprised by the sudden and simultaneous appearance of Israeli warplanes over 11 airfields at 7:45AM that morning. The time was chosen because the Egyptians routinely went on high alert at dawn to guard against surprise attack, but by 7:45AM the alert was usually over, the Egyptian airplanes were back on the ground, and their pilots were eating breakfast.
The first wave of Israeli attackers targeted the runways with special munitions: prototype penetration bombs that used accelerator rockets to drive the warheads through the pavement before detonation, resulting in a crater atop a sinkhole. The result was worse than that caused by normal bombs, whose damage could be repaired by simply filling in the ensuing crater and paving it over. The sinkhole caused by the prototype bombs required the complete removal of the damaged pavement in order to get at and fill in the sinkhole beneath. That was a far more laborious and time consuming process.
With the runways destroyed, the airplanes on the ground were stranded, sitting ducks for subsequent airstrikes. 197 Egyptian airplanes were destroyed in that first wave, with only 8 planes managing to take to the air. After striking an initial 11 Egyptian airbases, the Israeli planes returned home, refueled and rearmed in under 8 minutes, then headed back to wreck an additional 14 Egyptian airbases. They returned to Israel for yet another speedy refueling and rearming, and flew out in a third wave, divided between attacking what was left of the Egyptian air force, and striking the Syrian and Jordanian air forces.
By noon on June 5th, the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces were effectively wiped out. Israel&rsquos enemies lost about 450 airplanes, and about 20 Egyptian airbases were seriously damaged. That crippled what was left of the Egyptian air force and prevented it from participating in the remainder of the conflict. It was one of the most successful surprise attacks in history, and left the Israeli air force in complete control of the skies for the remainder of the war.
The 9 Most Memorable Surprise Attacks that Caught the Enemy Off Guard
The Trojan War, believed to have been waged during the 12th or 13th century bce, was one of the most consequential events in Greek history, with a legacy of epic military subterfuge. The conflict kicked off when Queen Helen of Sparta was abducted by the Trojan prince, Paris. To secure her return, more than a thousand Greek vessels sailed for Troy, where for the next decade the two armies repeatedly squared off in battle. But one morning, the Greek forces unexpectedly abandoned camp and retreated to a nearby island, leaving behind a mammoth wooden horse that was touted as an offering to the goddess Athena. Hours after the horse was rolled into the walled city, a few dozen armed warriors emerged from a trapdoor in its hollowed-out belly and, under cover of darkness, opened the fortress gates for their comrades, who had covertly sailed back from their island hiding place. The Greek army swiftly vanquished the thoroughly surprised Trojans and left their city in ruins.
Battle of Lake Trasimene
In 218 bce, a Roman declaration of war against Carthage triggered the Second Punic War, a 17-year conflict that, like the First Punic War (and later the Third), pitted two heavyweights eager for dominance in the western Mediterranean. Shortly thereafter, Hannibal led a massive force of Carthaginian cavalry and infantry—accompanied by more than three dozen war elephants—on a thousand-mile march that took them over the snowy Alps with the intention of attacking Rome from the north. On arriving in the Po Valley, near Turin, the Carthaginians fortified their ranks with fighters from local Gaul and Ligurian populations and then defeated the Romans in successive battles as they headed south. But it was the third battle, in 217 bce, that truly alarmed the Romans and showed off Hannibal’s legendary military acumen. This time, Hannibal lured the Roman general Gaius Flaminius into battle with a spate of attacks across the countryside and then set a deadly trap for the cocksure, yet incompetent, commander on a narrow road beside Lake Trasimene. The Roman forces, some 30,000 strong, pursued a small contingent of Hannibal’s troops at the far end of the lake, unaware that most of the general’s 40,000 fighters were lying in wait in the forested hills beside the road. Trapped on one side by the lake and the other by the hills, the Romans were easy prey as the ambushers charged en masse from their hiding places. With nowhere to run, many fled for the lake and drowned in their armor. In the end, 15,000 Romans died and a similar number were taken prisoner, wiping out nearly an entire army.
Battle of Medway
Following the start of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, in 1665, the Great Plague began ravaging London, and before long the epidemic had killed about a fourth of the city’s residents. In 1666, the Great Fire of London wiped out much of the beleaguered city’s housing. And in 1667, England again took it on the chin when a Dutch flotilla launched a surprise attack that produced one of the worst—and possibly most humiliating—defeats in the history of the Royal Navy. The audacious Dutch plan, masterminded by political leader Johann de Witt, was conceived to deliver a crushing blow to its adversary and gain the upper hand in treaty talks. After capturing the English seaport of Sheerness, in the mouth of the River Thames, the Dutch fleet—aided by two river pilots who were British defectors—navigated the treacherous River Medway, destroyed a protective iron chain stretched across it, and set upon battleships anchored at the presumed impenetrable ports at Gillingham and Chatham. As it turned out, deep budget cuts had left the English vessels more or less unguarded, and after sacking 13 of them, the Dutch aggressors retreated with two seafaring trophies, including HMS Royal Charles, the Royal Navy flagship.
Battle of Trenton
On Christmas night, 1776, General George Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army, led a detachment of some 2,400 troops across the icy Delaware River from their encampment in Pennsylvania and then marched nine miles south through a snowy nor’easter to Trenton, New Jersey, where about 1,400 Hessians, fighting in service to Great Britain, were garrisoned. Following a recent drubbing by British troops around New York City, patriot forces were depleted and demoralized enough to cast doubt on the American colonies’ quest for independence. But at Washington’s urging, some of those weary troops navigated their way across the treacherous Delaware (other detachments were foiled by the ice), and in columns that stretched as long as a mile, they headed for Trenton. Thanks in part to the work of a spy Washington had recruited, the German mercenaries were led to believe that no attack was imminent and had therefore let their guard down. As a result, the colonial forces were able to parlay an element of surprise into a resounding victory on the morning of December 26. This in turn boosted their morale and further inspired a wave of new recruits to join their ranks, thereby rejuvenating their military campaign.
Battle of Chancellorsville
On the morning of May 2, 1863, Confederate general Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, hastily concocted a bold plan with Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson that defied conventional military wisdom: divide their troops into two units and attack a Union army corps with twice as many soldiers hunkered down just west of Chancellorsville, Virginia. Jackson’s brigades of some 30,000 men—about two-thirds of his forces—moved out on a 12-mile trek along back roads and narrow trails, aiming to reach the far right flank of Union infantry troops commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker Lee simultaneously led the remaining 14,000 troops on a mission to divert Hooker’s attention from the left. Jackson’s “foot cavalry,” which Union scouts had spotted, eventually got into position for an attack, hiding in a dense forest. When no attack was forthcoming, Hooker, figuring that Jackson’s troops had retreated, diverted his assets Lee’s way. Late that afternoon, when Jackson’s men stormed the unprepared—and outmanned—Union soldiers, many of them fled. Over the next three days, the Confederates routed their adversary, although the victory was bittersweet: Jackson was hit that first night by friendly fire, and he died a week later from complications following surgery.
Battle of Taranto
In the closing hours of November 11, 1940, five months after Italy had declared war on Great Britain, the first of 21 aging two-seater biplanes took off from the British carrier HMS Illustrious and headed across the Mediterranean Sea for the heavily fortified naval base at Taranto, a coastal city inside the heel of the Italian boot. The Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber, affectionately nicknamed the “Stringbag” because it could carry a mix of loads, seemed to be the unlikeliest aircraft for a mission that aimed to put a major dent in the Italian navy’s fleet of warships: Placed into service during the mid-1930s, the Swordfish boasted a fabric skin, an open cockpit, and a lumbering top speed of just 143 miles per hour when laden with weapons. But while these aircraft may have been anachronisms, they performed admirably: The Italians were caught entirely off guard by the aerial attacks, and the Brits, using air-dropped torpedoes, laid waste to six enemy battleships stationed in Taranto harbor, along with destroyers and cruisers. The sneak attack, which resulted in the loss of two Swordfish, set the demoralized Italian navy on its heels, altering the balance of power in Mediterranean waters.
Throughout 1941, long-simmering Japanese anger over trade embargoes imposed by a coalition of the United States and its Western allies pointed toward the likelihood of a forthcoming war. The consensus among American intelligence officials was that when Japan initiated hostilities, it would do so relatively close to its borders, overrunning territories in the South Pacific, for example, as a way to seize precious natural resources, without which its expanding empire might falter. But just before 8 a.m. on December 7, a day before Japan would issue a formal declaration of war, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, threw the American military a 4,000-mile curveball: instead of targeting such anticipated targets as the Dutch East Indies or the U.S.–controlled Philippines, 353 Imperial Japanese aircraft, launched in back-to-back waves from carriers, targeted the unsuspecting naval base at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, which at the time was a U.S. territory. The surprise invasion, which lasted just two hours, destroyed much of the U.S. Pacific fleet and killed some 2,400 Americans. The next day, before a joint session of Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt famously called December 7 “a date which will live in infamy.” Shortly thereafter, Congress voted to approve Roosevelt’s declaration of war on Japan, signaling the country’s entrance into World War II.
In the spring of 1967, escalating diplomatic hostilities in the Middle East portended a looming military showdown, with Israel eyeballing a crescent-moon-shaped threat across its northern (Syrian), eastern (Jordanian), and western (Egyptian) borders. But on the morning of June 5, in an operation code-named Mivtza Moked (Operation Focus, a.k.a. the Sinai Air Strike), the Israeli Air Force caught its Egyptian counterpart napping and launched one of the most dramatic and successful surprise air attacks of all time. In the first wave of the preemptive strike, nearly 200 IAF aircraft headed out over the Mediterranean Sea, flying low enough to avoid both radar detection and surface-to-air missiles, then headed for Egypt, and, within just hours, destroyed its sitting-duck war planes in addition, the Israelis deployed a novel warhead that rendered its enemy’s military airstrips entirely unusable. Two more bombing waves soon followed, in the process destroying some 500 aircraft. And in the next five days, the IAF similarly neutered Jordanian and Syrian combat aircraft, while also causing massive losses among ground troops. In short order, the Six-Day War radically altered the geopolitics of the Middle East.
By most accounts, the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was humming along according to plans in early 1967, with the public largely behind combat efforts overseen by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and, on the ground, by General William Westmoreland. But as the year progressed, the North Vietnamese and their armed Communist allies in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong, began gaming out strategies to sabotage America’s battlefield thunder and entice the South Vietnamese people to abandon their allegiance to the country’s government. The most dramatic component of this effort was launched shortly after midnight on January 30, 1968, when the Viet Cong and their collaborators violated a well-established Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tet) treaty with surprise mortar and rocket attacks on military installations in five provincial capitals the next day, coordinated assaults were carried out across South Vietnam. The United States and its allies decisively beat back the insurgents, but the military victory was clouded by political upheaval: Antiwar sentiment, already escalating among the American public, accelerated dramatically after Tet, and two months later, in a televised address, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a partial halt to the bombing in Vietnam and his thoroughly unexpected decision to not seek another term in office. MHQ
Alan Green is a journalist in the Washington, D.C., area.
This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue (Vol. 33, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: War List | Surprise!
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Find Surprise Property Records
A Surprise Property Records Search locates real estate documents related to property in Surprise, Arizona. Public Property Records provide information on land, homes, and commercial properties in Surprise, including titles, property deeds, mortgages, property tax assessment records, and other documents. Several government offices in Surprise and Arizona state maintain Property Records, which are a valuable tool for understanding the history of a property, finding property owner information, and evaluating a property as a buyer or seller.
Why The Unexpected Muon Was The Biggest Surprise In Particle Physics History
Back in the early 1930s, there were only a few known fundamental particles that made up the Universe. If you divided up the matter and radiation we observed and interacted with into the smallest possible components we could break them up into at the time, there were only the positively charged atomic nuclei (including the proton), the electrons that orbited them, and the photon. This accounted for the known elements, but there were a few anomalies that didn’t quite line up.
Heavier elements also had more charge, but argon and potassium were an exception: argon only had a charge of +18 units, but a mass of
40 atomic mass units, while potassium had a charge of +19 units, but a mass of
39 units. The 1932 discovery of the neutron took care of that one. Certain types of radioactive decay — beta decays — appeared to not conserve energy and momentum, leading to Pauli’s 1930 hypothesizing of the neutrino, which wouldn’t be discovered for another 26 years. And the Dirac equation predicted negative energy states, which corresponded to antimatter counterparts for particles like the electron: the positron.
Still, nothing could have prepared physicists for the discovery of the muon: an unstable particle with the same charge, but hundreds of times the mass, of the electron. Here’s how this surprise really did turn physics on its head.
The story starts way back in 1912, when adventuresome physicist Victor Hess had the brilliant idea to take a particle detector with him on a hot air balloon flight. You might wonder what the motivation would be for this, and it came from an unlikely source: the electroscope (above). An electroscope is just two thin pieces of conducting, metal foil, connected to a conductor and sealed inside an airless vacuum. If you charge up the electroscope, either positively or negatively, the like-charged pieces of foil will repel each other, while if you ground it, it becomes neutral, and goes back to the uncharged position.
But here was the strange thing: if you left the electroscope alone, even in a fairly perfect vacuum, it still discharged over time. No matter how good you made your vacuum — even if you placed lead shielding around it — the electroscope still discharged. Moreover, if you performed this experiment at higher and higher altitudes, it discharged more quickly. This was where Hess got his big idea, imagining that high-energy radiation, with both high penetrating power and of extraterrestrial origin, was the culprit.
If there are charged cosmic particles zipping through Earth’s atmosphere, they could help neutralize this charge over time, as the oppositely-charged particles would be attracted to the electrode and the like-charges would be repelled by it. Hess imagined that there was a very real “zoo” of particles zipping around through space, and that the closer he got to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere (i.e., the higher altitudes he went to), the more likely he’d be to observe these particles directly.
Hess constructed a detection chamber that contained a magnetic field, so that any charged particles would curve in its presence. Based on the direction and curvature of any particle tracks that appeared in the detector, he could reconstruct what the velocity of the particle was as well as its charge-to-mass ratio. Hess’s earliest efforts immediately paid off, as he began discovering particles in great abundance, founding the science of cosmic ray astrophysics in the process.
Many protons and electrons were seen in these early cosmic rays, and later on, the first antimatter particles were discovered this way as well. But the big surprise came in 1933, when Paul Kunze was working with cosmic rays and found a particle that didn’t quite fit. It had the same charge as an electron, but was simultaneously far too heavy to be an electron while also being far too light to be an antiproton. It was as though there was some new type of charged particle, of an intermediate mass between the other known particles, that suddenly announced, “hey, surprise, I exist!”
The higher in altitude we went, the more cosmic rays we observed. At the highest altitudes, the overwhelming majority of cosmic rays were neutrons and electrons and protons, while only a small fraction of them were muons. However, as detectors got more and more sensitive, they started to be able to detect these cosmic rays at lower altitudes, even closer to sea level. Today, for about $100 and with off-the-shelf materials, you can build your own cloud chamber and detect cosmic ray muons — the most abundant cosmic ray particle at sea level — at home.
Over the next few years, scientists worked hard to detect these muons not from high-altitude experiments, but to observe them in a terrestrial laboratory. In theory, they were being produced by what we call cosmic ray showers: where particles from space hit the upper atmosphere. When this occurs, interactions from the fast-moving cosmic particles that strike the stationary atmospheric particles produce lots of new particles-and-antiparticles, with the most common product being a short-lived, unstable particle known as a pion.
The charged pions live only for nanoseconds, decaying into muons, among other particles. These muons are also short-lived, but much longer-lived than the pion. With a mean lifetime of 2.2 microseconds, they’re the longest-lived unstable particle except for the neutron, which has a mean lifetime of around 15 minutes! In theory, not only should these cosmic ray showers produce them, but any collision of particles that had enough energy to produce pions should also yield muons that we could study in a lab. The muon, in our detectors, look just like electrons do, except they have 206 times the electron’s mass.
In 1936, Carl Anderson and Seth Neddermeyer were able to distinctly identify populations of both negatively and positively charged muons from cosmic rays, an indication that there were muons and anti-muons, just as there were electrons and anti-electrons (positrons) found in nature. The next year, 1937, saw the scientist team of J.C. Street and E.C. Stevenson independently confirm that discovery in a cloud chamber. Muons were not only real, but relatively common.
In fact, if you hold out your hand and point your palm so that it faces up, towards the sky, approximately one muon (or anti-muon) will pass through your hand with each second that goes by. At sea level, 90% of all the cosmic ray particles reaching Earth’s surface are muons, with neutrons and electrons making up most of the rest. Before we had even discovered mesons, which are composite quark-antiquark combinations, exotic, heavy, unstable baryons (which are combinations of three quarks, like protons and neutrons), or the quarks that underlie matter, we had discovered the muon: the heavy, unstable cousin of the electron.
As soon as the physicist I. I. Rabi, who himself would win the Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance (today used ubiquitously in MRI technology), learned about the muon, he famously quipped, “who ordered that?” With so few particles known at the time, adding this strange cousin of the electron — heavy, unstable, and short-lived — seemed like a phenomenon of nature that defied explanation.
We were decades away from uncovering the nature of matter and the structure of the Standard Model, but the muon was our very first clue that there were not only more particles out there waiting to be discovered, but that particles came in multiple generations. The first-generation of particles are the stable ones, consisting of the up and down quarks, the electron and the electron neutrino, and their antimatter counterparts. Today, we know of two more generations: the second-generation, which has charm and strange quarks with muons and muon neutrinos, and the third-generation, which has top and bottom quarks with tau and tau neutrino particles, plus their analogous antimatter counterparts.
The muon, however, didn’t merely foreshadow all of these new discoveries, but it also yielded an exciting and counterintuitive demonstration of Einstein’s relativity. The muons that get created from cosmic ray collisions, on average, originate at an altitude of 100 kilometers. However, the mean lifetime of a muon is only 2.2 microseconds. If a muon moved extremely close to the speed of light at 300,000 km/s, you can do a little math, multiplying that speed by the muon’s lifetime, to find that they should travel about 660 meters before decaying.
But muons arrive at Earth’s surface, journeying 100 kilometers and still not decaying! How is this possible? Without relativity, it wouldn’t be. But relativity brings along the phenomenon of time dilation, enabling particles that move close to the speed of light to experience time passing more slowly than they do for observers at rest. Without time dilation, we would never have discovered these cosmic muons, and we wouldn’t be able to see them in our terrestrial cloud chambers, not unless we created them from particle accelerators. Einstein, despite not knowing it, helped us discover this fundamentally new form of matter.
Looking ahead, being able to control and manipulate these muons just might lead to advances in experimental particle physics that no other type of collider can match. When you build a particle accelerator, there are only three factors that determine how energetic your collisions are:
- how big your ring is, with larger circumference rings achieving higher energies,
- how strong your magnetic fields that bend your charged particles are, with stronger magnets leading to higher energies,
- and the charge-to-mass ratio of your particle, with low masses leading to synchrotron radiation and a limiting energy, and high masses not having that problem.
That third factor is why we use protons instead of electrons in accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, but there’s a drawback: protons are composite particles, and only a tiny fraction of its total energy winds up in a quark or gluon that collides with another. But the muon doesn’t suffer from that drawback, and it also isn’t limited by synchrotron radiation like electrons are, due to its much heavier mass. If we can master muon accelerators, we just might unlock the next frontier in experimental particle physics.
Today, we can look back on the discovery of the muon as quaint, with our hot air balloons and primitive detectors revealing these uniquely bent particle tracks. But the muon itself continues to provide a legacy of scientific discoveries. From its power in illustrating the effects of time dilation on a particle’s observed lifetime to its potential to lead to a fundamentally new, superior type of particle accelerator, the muon is a whole lot more than just background noise in some of our most sensitive, underground experiments searching for the rarest particle interactions of all. Even today, the experiment to measure the muon’s magnetic dipole moment could be the key that takes us, at last, into understanding physics beyond the Standard Model.
Still, when it unexpectedly announced its existence in the 1930s, it was truly a surprise. For all of history before then, no one had imagined that nature would make multiple copies of the fundamental particles that underpinned our reality, and that those particles would all be unstable against decays. The muon just happens to be the first, lightest, and longest-lived of all of those particles. When you think of the muon, remember it as the first “generation 2” particle ever discovered, and the first clue we ever got as to the true nature of the Standard Model.