Celebrating the Standard Model: How We Know Quarks Come in Three “Colors”

A post for general readers:

Within the Standard Model, the quarks (and anti-quarks) are my favorite particles, because they are so interesting and so diverse. Physicists often say, in their whimsical jargon, that quarks come in various “flavors” and “colors”.   But don’t take these words seriously! They’re just labels; neither has anything to do with taste or vision. We might just as well have said the quarks come in “gerflacks” and “sharjees”; or better, we might have said “types” and “versions”. 

Today I’ll show you how one can easily see that each of the six flavors of quark comes in three colors (i.e., each gerflack/type of quark comes in three sharjees/versions.)  All we’ll need to do is examine a simple property of the W boson, one of the other particles in the Standard Model.

[Another way to say this is that the Standard Model is often described as having a kind of symmetry named “SU(3)xSU(2)xU(1)”; today we’ll put the “3” in SU(3). ]

Gerflacks and Sharjees of Quarks

We know there are six types/gerflacks/flavors of quarks because each type of quark has its own unique mass and lifetime, a fact that’s relatively easy to confirm experimentally.  Quarks 1 and 2 are called down and up, quarks 3 and 4 are called strange and charm, and quarks 5 and 6 are called bottom and top; again, the whimsical names don’t have any meaning, and we often just label them d, u, s, c, b, t.

But to understand why each type of quark comes in three versions/sharjees/colors is more subtle, because two quarks of the same “flavor” which differ only by their “color” appear the same in experiments (despite our intuition for what the word “color” usually means.)

What, in fact, is a “color”? Each color/sharjee/version is a kind of strong nuclear charge, analogous to electric charge, which we encounter in daily life through static electricity and other phenomena. Electric charge determines which objects attract and repel each other via electrical forces. Electrons have electric charge, and so do quarks; that’s why electrical forces affect them. But quarks, unlike electrons, have strong nuclear charge too, and those charges determine how quarks attract or repel one another via the the strong nuclear force.  

And here’s the interesting point: whereas there is only one version of electric charge (electrons and protons and atomic nuclei have different amounts of it, but it is different amounts of the same thing), there are three different versions/sharjees/colors of strong nuclear charge.  They are often called “red”, “green” and “blue”, or “redness”, “greeness” and “blueness”. (Remember, these are just names for sharjees — for versions of strong nuclear charge. In no sense do they represent actual colors that your eyes would see, any more than the six types/flavors of quarks would taste differently.)

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The Standard Model More Deeply: The Nature of Neutrinos

Earlier this week I explained how neutrinos can get their mass within the Standard Model of particle physics, either by engaging with the Higgs field once, the way the other particles do, or by engaging with it twice. In the first case, the neutrinos would be “Dirac fermions”, just like electrons and quarks. In the second, they’d be “Majorana fermions”. Decades ago, in the original Standard Model, neutrinos were thought not to have any mass at all, and were “Weyl fermions.” Although I explained in my last post what these three types of fermions are, today I want go a little deeper, and provide you with a diagrammatic way of understanding the differences among them, as well as a more complete view of the workings of the “see-saw mechanism”, which may well be the cause of the neutrinos’ exceptionally small masses.

[N.B. On this website, mass means “rest mass” except when otherwise indicated.]

The Three Types of Fermions

What’s a fermion? All particles in our world are either fermions or bosons. Bosons are highly social and are happy to all do the same thing, as when huge numbers of photons are all locked in synch to make a laser. Fermions are loners; they refuse to do the same thing, and the “Pauli exclusion principle” that plays a huge role in atomic physics, creating the famous shell structure of atoms, arises from the fact that electrons are fermions. The Standard Model fermions and their masses are shown below.

Figure 1: The masses of the known elementary particles, showing how neutrino masses are much smaller and much more uncertain than those of all the other particles with mass. The horizontal grey bar shows the maximum masses from cosmic measurements; the vertical grey bars give an idea of where the masses might lie based on current knowledge, indicating the still very substantial uncertainty.
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Celebrating the Standard Model: Why Are Neutrino Masses So Small?

For the general reader interested in particle physics or astronomy:

Most of the Standard Model’s particles have a mass [a rest mass, to be precise], excepting only the photon (the particle of light) and the gluon (found in protons and neutrons.) For reasons not understood at all, these masses stretch out over a range of a trillion or more.

If it weren’t for the three types of neutrinos, the range would be a mere 400,000, from the top quark’s mass (172 GeV/c2) to the electron’s (0.000511 GeV/c2), still puzzling large. But neutrinos make the puzzle extreme! The universe’s properties strongly suggest that the largest mass among the neutrinos can’t be more than 0.0000000001 GeV/c2 , while other experiments tell us it can’t be too much less. The masses of the other two may be similar, or possibly much smaller.

Figure 1: The masses of the known elementary particles, showing how neutrino masses are much smaller and much more uncertain than those of all the other particles with mass. The horizontal grey bar shows the maximum masses from cosmic measurements; the vertical grey bars give an idea of where the masses might lie based on current knowledge, indicating the still very substantial uncertainty.

This striking situation is illustrated in Figure 1, in which

  • I’ve used a “logarithmic plot”, which compresses the vertical scale; if I used a regular “linear” plot, you’d see only the heaviest few masses, with the rest crushed to the bottom;
  • For later use, I’ve divided the particles into two classes: “fermions” and “bosons”.
  • Also, though some of these particles have separate anti-particles, I haven’t shown them; it wouldn’t add anything, since the anti-particle of any particle type has exactly the same mass.

As you can see, the neutrinos are way down at the bottom, far from everyone else? What’s up with that? The answer isn’t known; it’s part of ongoing research. But today I’ll tell you why

  • once upon a time it was thought that the Standard Model solved this puzzle;
  • today we know of two simple solutions to it, but don’t know which one is right;
  • each of these requires a minor modification of the Standard Model: in one case a new type of particle, in another case a new phenomenon.
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Celebrating the Standard Model: Atoms, Quarks and the Strong Nuclear Force

For the general reader:

Last week I showed you, without any technicalities, how to recognize the elementary forces of nature in the pattern of particle masses and lifetimes. This week we’ll start seeing what we can extract just from the particles’ masses alone… and what we cannot. Today we’ll focus on quarks and the strong nuclear force.

A key factor in nature, which plays an enormous role in everyday life, is the mass of a typical atom. [Note: on this website, “mass” always means “rest mass”, which does not increase with a particle’s speed.] This in turn arises mainly from the masses of protons and neutrons, which are about equal, and tiny: about 0.00000000000000000000000000167 kg (or 0.00000000000000000000000000368 pounds). Since those numbers are crazy-small, physicists use a different measure; we say the mass is about 1 GeV/c2, and more precisely, 0.938 GeV/c2. In any case, it’s tiny on human scales, but it’s some definite quantity, the same for every proton in nature. Where does this mass come from; what natural processes determine it?

You may have heard the simplistic remark that “a proton is made of three quarks” (two up quarks and a down quark), which would suggest these quarks have mass of about 1/3 of a proton, or about 0.313 GeV/c2. But something’s clearly amiss. If you look at websites and other sources about particle physics, they all agree that up and down quark masses are less than 0.01 GeV/c2; these days they usually say the up quark has mass of 0.002 GeV/c2 and the down quark has 0.005 GeV/c2. So if the proton were simply made of three quarks, it would naively have a mass of less than 1% of its actual mass.

What’s going on? A first little clue is that different sources sometimes quote different numbers for the quark masses. There are six types of quarks; from smallest mass to largest, they are up, down, strange (u,d,s, the three light quarks), charm, bottom (c,b, the two somewhat heavy quarks) and top (t, the super-heavy quark.) [Their names, by the way, are historical accidents and don’t mean anything.] But some websites say the up quark mass is 0.003 instead of 0.002 GeV/c2, a 50% discrepancy; the bottom quark’s mass is variously listed as 4.1 GeV/c2, 4.5 GeV/c2, and so forth. This is in contrast to, say, the electron’s mass; you’ll never see websites that disagree about that.

The origin of all these discrepancies is that quarks (and anti-quarks and gluons) are affected by the strong nuclear force, unlike electrons, Higgs bosons, and all the other known elementary particles. The strong forces that quarks undergo make everything about them less clear and certain. Among numerous manifestations, the most dramatic is that quarks (and anti-quarks and gluons) are never observed in isolation. Instead they’re always found in special combinations, called “hadrons“. A proton is an example, but there are many more. And the strong nuclear force can have a big effect on their masses.

The Modern Proton and the Masses of Quarks

A proton, in fact, is not simply made from three quarks, the way a hydrogen atom is simply made from a proton and an electron. As I described in this article, it’s vastly more complex; it’s made from three quarks plus lots of gluons plus lots of pairs of other quarks and anti-quarks. So the simple intuition we get from atoms does not apply to hadrons like the proton.

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The Standard Model More Deeply: Masses, Lifetimes and Forces

Today’s post is for readers with a little science/math background:

Last week, I explained, without technicalities, how the various elementary forces of nature can be inferred from the pattern of lifetimes of the known particles.  I did this using an image, repeated below, that organized the particles by their masses and lifetimes.  I’ll add more non-technical posts on the Standard Model in the coming days. But today’s post is a tad more technical, using dimensional analysis (a physicist’s secret weapon) (which I demonstrated here, here and here) to explain key features of the image: the red line, the blue line, and the particles at the upper left, as well as why there is a high-energy and a low-energy version of the weak nuclear force.

Figure 1:  An assortment of the known particles particles clustered into classes according to the “force” that causes them to decay. See this recent post for details.
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At a Workshop on Hidden Particles at the LHC

Cutting edge particle physics today:

I’ve been spending the week at an inspiring and thought-provoking scientific workshop. (Well, “at” means “via Zoom”, which has been fun since I’m in the US and the workshop is in Zurich; I’ve been up every morning this week before the birds.) The workshop brings together a terrific array of particle theorists and Large Hadron Collider [LHC] experimenters from the ATLAS and CMS experiments, and is aimed at “Semi-Visible Jets”, a phenomenon that could reveal so-far-undiscovered types of particles in a context where they could easily be hiding. [Earlier this week I described why its so easy for new particles to hide from us; the Higgs boson itself hid for almost 25 years.]

After a great set of kick-off talks, including a brand new result on the subject from ATLAS (here’s an earlier one from CMS) we moved into the presentation and discussion stage, and I’ve been learning a lot. The challenges of the subject are truly daunting, not only because the range of possible semi-visible jets is huge, but also because the scientific expertise that has to be gathered in order to design searches for semi-visible jets is exceptionally wide, and often lies at or beyond the cutting edge of research.

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Celebrating the Standard Model: The Forces of Nature

A post for general readers:

This is the first of several posts celebrating the hugely successful Standard Model of particle physics, the concepts and equations that describe the basic bricks and mortar of the universe. In these posts, I’ll explain (without assuming readers have a science background) how we know some of its most striking features. We’ll look at simple facts that particle physicists have learned over the decades, and use them to infer basic features of the universe and to recognize deep questions that still trouble the experts.

The Elementary “Forces” of Physics: A Classification of Nature

Perhaps you’ve heard it said that “There are four fundamental forces in nature.” Whether you have or not, today I’ll show you how to verify this yourself. (Actually, there are five forces, though we’ll only see a hint of the fifth today.) The force everybody knows from daily life is gravity; ironically, this force has no measurable impact on particle physics, so it’s the only one we won’t be looking at in this post.

I’d better emphasize, though, that the word “force” is slippery. Normally, in everyday life, a force means something that will push or pull objects around. But when physicists say “force,” they often mean something much more general. Because of that they sometimes use the word “interaction” instead of “force”.

For example, static electricity that holds socks together when they come out of the dryer is an example of an honest electromagnetic force — the socks really are pulled together. So is the force that pulls a magnet to a refrigerator door. But when a light bulb glows, that doesn’t involve a force in the limited sense of a push or pull. Yet it still involves the “electromagnetic interaction”, i.e. the “electromagnetic force” in a generalized sense. That’s because, although it is far from obvious, the emission (or absorption) of light involves the same basic phenomena that govern the force between the socks.

[Physicists use “electromagnetic” rather than “electric” or “magnetic” separately because these two forces are so deeply intertwined that it is often impossible to distinguish them.]

So when physicists say there are “four forces” (or five), they are imposing a classification scheme on the world around us. They mean:

  • All fundamental physical processes in nature can be divided up into five classes.
  • Each class involves one of the following types of interactions:
    1. gravitational (holds the planet together and holds us to the ground),
    2. electromagnetic (creates light, controls chemistry and biology, and dominates daily life),
    3. weak-nuclear (essential in stars and in supernova explosions),
    4. strong-nuclear (forms protons, neutrons, and their agglomerations in atomic nuclei),
    5. Higgs-related (associated with the masses of all known elementary particles).

There are currently no verified exceptions to this classification scheme. And by examining basic facts about the various particles found in nature, we can see these classes (other than gravity) in operation.

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Celebrating the 34th Birthday of the Higgs Boson!

Ten years ago today, the discovery of the type of particle known as the “Higgs Boson” was announced. [What is this particle and why was its discovery important? Here’s the most recent Higgs FAQ, slightly updated, and a literary article aimed at all audiences high-school and up, which has been widely read.]

But the particle was first produced by human beings in 1988 or 1989, as long as 34 years ago! Why did it take physicists until 2012 to discover that it exists? That’s a big question with big implications.

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