Tag Archives: quarks

Which Parts of the Big Bang Theory are Reliable, and Why?

Familiar throughout our international culture, the “Big Bang” is well-known as the theory that scientists use to describe and explain the history of the universe. But the theory is not a single conceptual unit, and there are parts that are more reliable than others.

It’s important to understand that the theory — a set of equations describing how the universe (more precisely, the observable patch of our universe, which may be a tiny fraction of the universe) changes over time, and leading to sometimes precise predictions for what should, if the theory is right, be observed by humans in the sky — actually consists of different periods, some of which are far more speculative than others.  In the more speculative early periods, we must use equations in which we have limited confidence at best; moreover, data relevant to these periods, from observations of the cosmos and from particle physics experiments, is slim to none. In more recent periods, our confidence is very, very strong.

In my “History of the Universe” article [see also my related articles on cosmic inflation, on the Hot Big Bang, and on the pre-inflation period; also a comment that the Big Bang is an expansion, not an explosion!], the following figure appears, though without the colored zones, which I’ve added for this post. The colored zones emphasize what we know, what we suspect, and what we don’t know at all.

History of the Universe, taken from my article with the same title, with added color-coded measures of how confident we can be in its accuracy.  In each colored zone, the degree of confidence and the observational/experimental source of that confidence is indicated. Three different possible starting points for the "Big Bang" are noted at the bottom; different scientists may mean different things by the term.

History of the Universe, taken from my article with the same title, with added color-coded measures of how confident we can be in our understanding. In each colored zone, the degree of confidence and the observational/experimental source of that confidence is indicated. Three different possible starting points for the “Big Bang” are noted at the bottom; note that individual scientists may mean different things by the term.

Notice that in the figure, I don’t measure time from the start of the universe.  That’s because I don’t know how or when the universe started (and in particular, the notion that it started from a singularity, or worse, an exploding “cosmic egg”, is simply an over-extrapolation to the past and a misunderstanding of what the theory actually says.) Instead I measure time from the start of the Hot Big Bang in the observable patch of the universe.  I also don’t even know precisely when the Hot Big Bang started, but the uncertainty on that initial time (relative to other events) is less than one second — so all the times I’ll mention, which are much longer than that, aren’t affected by this uncertainty.

I’ll now take you through the different confidence zones of the Big Bang, from the latest to the earliest, as indicated in the figure above.

Continue reading

Quantum Field Theory, String Theory, and Predictions (Part 5)

[This is part 5 of a series, which begins here.]

In a previous post, I told you about how physicists use computers to study how the strong nuclear force combines certain elementary particles — specifically quarks and anti-quarks and gluons — into hadrons, such as protons and neutrons and pions.  Computers can also be used to study certain other phenomena that, because they involve the strong nuclear force where it is truly “strong” [in the technical sense described here], can’t be studied using simpler methods of successive approximation. While computers aren’t a panacea, they do allow some important and difficult questions about the strong nuclear force to be answered with precision.

To do these calculations, physicists study an imaginary world, as I described;

  • all forces except the strong nuclear force are ignored, and
  • all particles are forgotten except the gluons and the up, down and strange quarks (and their anti-quarks).
  • On top of this, the up, down and strange quark masses are typically changed. They are taken larger, which makes the calculations easier, and then gradually reduced towards their small values in the real world.

The Notion of “Effective” Quantum Field Theories

There’s one more interesting method for understanding the strong nuclear force that I haven’t mentioned yet, and it too involves changing the quark masses — making them smaller, rather than larger! And weirdly, this doesn’t involve the equations of the quantum field theory for the quarks, antiquarks and gluons at all. It involves a different quantum field theory altogether — one which says nothing about the quarks and gluons, but instead describes the physics of the hadrons themselves. More precisely, its equations are useful for making predictions about the hadrons of lowest masscalled pions, kaons and etas — and it works for processes

  • with rather low energy — too low to affect the behavior of the quarks and anti-quarks and gluons inside the pions — and
  • at rather long distance — too long to detect that the pions have a lot of internal structure.

This includes some of the phenomena involved in the physics of atomic nuclei, the next level up in the structure of matter (quarks/gluons → protons/neutrons → nuclei → atoms → molecules). Continue reading

The Bedlam Within Protons and Neutrons

My Structure of Matter series has been on hold for a bit, as I have been debating how to describe protons and neutrons.  These constituents of atomic nuclei, which, when combined with electrons, form atoms, are drawn in most cartoons of atoms as simple spheres.  But not only are they much, much smaller than they are drawn in those cartoons, they hide within them a surprising commotion, one that cannot be anticipated from the relatively simple structures of atoms and of nuclei.

As I’ve described in my new article, along the lines of this short article and this more detailed one that I wrote some time ago in the context of the Large Hadron Collider, the story that scientists tell the public most often, that “a proton is made from two up quarks and a down quark”, is not in fact the full story — and in some ways it is deeply misleading.  The structure of protons and neutrons is so entirely unfamiliar, and so complicated, that scientists neither have a simple way of calculating it, nor an entirely agreed-upon way to describe it to the public, or even to physics students.  But I believe my way of describing it will be satisfactory to most particle physicists.

The new article is not entirely complete; it is perhaps only half its final length.  I’ll be adding some further sections that cover some subtle issues.  But since I suspect many people won’t feel the need to read those later sections, the completed part is written to stand on its own.  If you like, take a look and let me know if you have questions, suggestions or corrections.

A Violation of Lepton Universality?

A brief mention today of a new measurement from the BABAR experimental collaboration, which tests lepton universality (to be explained below) and finds it wanting.

The Basic Story (Slightly Oversimplified)

Within the Standard Model of particle physics (the equations that describe and predict the behavior of all of the known particles and forces), the effects of the weak nuclear force on the three leptons — the electron, the muon and the tau — are all expected to be identical. This called “lepton universality”. Continue reading

SEARCH Workshop Panel Discussion on LHC Posted Online

The final panel discussion at the Maryland SEARCH workshop — six theoretical particle physicists talking about the 2011 experimental results from the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] and looking ahead to the 2012 data — has finally been posted online, along with the rest of the presentations at the workshop. I wrote about the workshop, which took place in mid-March, here and here.  In the latter post, I wrote:

The workshop concluded with a panel discussion — the only point during the entire workshop when theorists were formally asked to say something. The panel consisted of Michael Peskin (senior statesman [and my Ph.D. advisor] famous for many reasons, including fundamental work on the implications of highly precise measurements ), Nima Arkani-Hamed (junior statesman, and famous for helping develop several revolutionary new ways of approaching the hierarchy problem),  Riccardo Rattazzi (also famous for conceptual advances in dealing with the hierarchy problem), Gavin Salam (famous for his work advancing the applications of the theory of quarks and gluons, including revolutionary methods for dealing with jets), and myself (famous for talking too much… though come to think of it, that was true of the whole panel, except Gavin.) And Raman Sundrum, one of the organizers (and famous for his collaboration with Lisa Randall in introducing “warped” extra dimensions, and also anomaly-mediated supersymmetry breaking [which was competitive with a paper by Rattazzi and his colleagues]) informally participated too. Continue reading

CMS Finds a New (Expected, Composite) Particle

Yes, it’s true what you’ve read; the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider has found a new particle.  However, this isn’t one to get excited about.  Or rather, it’s the particle that’s excited, not the rest of us.  It’s a nice result; a neat result; but this particle is a slightly more massive version of a hadron that we already knew about, a composite object similar to a proton, built out of more fundamental particles we discovered over 30 years ago.  So in the grand scheme of things, this is minor news; no big mysteries to resolve here.  Nevertheless, congratulations to CMS! Finding such particles always involves reconstructing them from their decay products, and since this one decays in a very complicated way, the result represents a technical tour-de-force!

This is a similar story to one from last December, when ATLAS announced that it had found, with confidence, a new particle.  I explained to you then that there are particles and there are particles; Continue reading

Following Up on the Proton’s Structure

This is a follow-up especially aimed at those non-experts who got really excited by my recent posts on the internal structure of the proton (here, here and here), in which I described the proton as being a lot more complicated than just two up quarks and a down quark, emphasizing the presence of many gluons and of many quark/anti-quark pairs in addition to those three quarks that everyone talks about.

Following those posts, I got a lot of very good questions. I’ve been absorbing them and thinking about how to answer them effectively.  I had taken you as far as I knew how to go without hitting technical barriers. You probably noticed I was very careful to address certain issues and not others — answering certain questions and avoiding others. And many of you, intelligently, asked the questions I didn’t answer. So now you get to find out why I didn’t answer them in the first place.  [You asked!]   Continue reading

How Do We KNOW a Proton Is So Complicated? (Data!)

Among the bridges that I hope to build, as I develop this website, is one connecting what we know today about nature with how we know it. After all, you’re reading my depiction of nature, based on how I think nature works.  I can try to assure you that my depiction is the mainstream viewpoint at the forefront of the research field — but you may still wonder if this website is legitimate, or if I might just be full of hot air, or if I might simply be mistaken. Well, my confidence in what I’m saying doesn’t come from having trained at some fancy university or my degree or from having been in the business for over 20 years. It comes from the data… in short, from nature itself.

So it’s important, I think, to link the data to the ideas and concepts, when it’s possible to do that.

You’ve heard the famous statement that “a proton is made from two up quarks and a down quark”.  But in this basic article, and this somewhat more advanced one, and in Wednesday’s post where I went into some details about what we know about proton structure, I’ve claimed to you that protons are actually chock full of particles, most of which carry a tiny fraction of the proton’s energy, and most of which are gluons, with a lot of quarks and antiquarks. [If this sounds unfamiliar, you should read those articles and posts before reading this one, which is a follow-up.]  And I claimed that these complications make a big difference at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC].

So should you take my word for this? You don’t have to.  Let me show you evidence.  From LHC data.  Here’s an article defending the main claim’s of Wednesday’s post.  It’s a near-final draft, still needing some proofreading perhaps, and probably some clarification, but I think it is fully readable now.  Enjoy it (and please feel free to give me feedback on its clarity, so I can improve it), or wait for the final version next week, as you see fit.  And have a great weekend!