Hi all, and welcome! On this site, devoted to sharing the excitement and meaning of science, you’ll find a blog (posts begin below) and reference articles (accessible from the menus above.) The site is being upgraded, so you’ll see some ongoing changes; if you notice technical problems, please let me know.  [Sep. 6: I’m aware spam filtering has been too aggressive today.] Thanks, and enjoy!

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Protons and Charm Quarks: A Lesson From Virtual Particles

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about a claim that charm quarks are found in protons. While the evidence for this claim of “intrinsic charm” (a name that goes back decades) is by no means entirely convincing yet, it might in fact be true… sort of. But the whole idea sounds very confusing. A charm quark has a larger mass than a proton: about 1.2 GeV/c2 vs. 0.938 GeV/c2. On the face of it, suggesting there are charm quarks in protons sounds as crazy as suggesting that a football could have a lead brick inside it without you noticing any difference.

What’s really going on? It’s a long story, and subtle even for experts, so it’s not surprising that most articles about it for lay readers haven’t been entirely clear. At some point I’ll write a comprehensive explanation, but that will require a longer post (or series of posts), and I don’t want to launch into that until my conceptual understanding of important details is complete.

Feynman diagram suggesting a photon is sometimes an electron-positron pair.

But in the meantime, here’s a related question: how can a particle with zero mass (zero rest mass, to be precise) spend part of its time as a combination of objects that have positive mass? For instance, a photon [a particle of light, including both visible and invisible forms of light] has zero rest mass. [Note, however, that it has non-zero gravitational mass]. Meanwhile electrons and positrons [the anti-particles of electrons] both have positive rest mass. So what do people mean when they say “A photon can be an electron-positron pair part of the time”? This statement comes with a fancy “Feynman diagram”, in which the photon is shown as the wavy line, time is running left to right, and the loop represents an electron and a positron created from the photon.

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The Hunger for Power: Geopolitics and Particle Physics

A few days after Russia invaded Ukraine (I will not call it a “war,” as that might offend Czar Vlad and his friends) for the nth time, my thoughts turned to the consequences for the CERN laboratory and for upcoming research at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC].   It was clear that Putin would blackmail Europe using his oil and gas supplies, leading to a spike in energy prices and a corresponding spike in CERN’s budget.

Of course I didn’t foresee the heat waves and drought that have swept Europe, or the maintenance problems at France’s nuclear plants, which have made the energy crisis that much worse.  (Even though global climate change is now quite obvious, and the trends are partially predictable, one can’t predict what will happen in any given year.)  I am not familiar with the budgetary consequences of these higher energy prices for CERN operations, but they cannot be good.

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Relatively Confused: Is It True That Nothing Can Exceed Light Speed?

A post for general readers:

Einstein’s relativity. Everybody’s heard of it, many have read about it, a few have learned some of it.  Journalists love to write about it.  It’s part of our culture; it’s always in the air, and has been for over a century.

Most of what’s in the air, though, is in the form of sound bites, partly true but often misleading.  Since Einstein’s view of relativity (even more than Galileo’s earlier one) is inherently confusing, the sound bites turn a maze into a muddled morass.

For example, take the famous quip: “Nothing can go faster than the speed of light.”  (The speed of light is denoted “c“, and is better described as the “cosmic speed limit”.) This quip is true, and it is false, because the word “nothing” is ambiguous, and so is the phrase “go faster”. 

What essential truth lies behind this sound bite?

Faster Than Light? An Example.

Let’s first see how it can lead us astray.

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Continued Controversy on the Ring of Light

For general readers: A week or so ago, I wrote about my skepticism concerning the claim of a “detection” of the photon ring that’s widely expected to lie hidden within the image of a black hole. A nice article in Science News appeared today outlining the current controversy, with some quotes from scientists with differing … Read more

The Standard Model More Deeply: Lessons on the Strong Nuclear Force from Quark Electric Charges

For readers who want to go a bit deeper into details (though I suggest you read last week’s posts for general readers first [post 1, post 2]):

Last week, using just addition and subtraction of fractions, we saw that the ratio of production rates

  • R = Rate (e+ e ⟶ quark anti-quark) / Rate (e+ e ⟶ muon anti-muon)

(where e stands for “electron” and e+ for “positron”) can be used to verify the electric charges of the quarks of nature. [In this post I’ll usually drop the word “electric” from “electric charge”.] Specifically, the ratio R, at different energies, is both sensitive to and consistent with the Standard Model of particle physics, not only confirming the quarks’ charges but also the fact that they come in three “colors”. (About colors, you can read recent posts here, here and here.)

To keep the previous posts short, I didn’t give evidence that the data agrees only with the Standard Model; I’ll start today by doing that. But I did point out that the data doesn’t quite match the simple prediction. You can see that in the figure below, repeated from last time; it shows the data (black dots) lies close to the predictions (the solid lines) but generally lies a few percent above them. Why is this? The answer: we neglected a small but noticeable effect from the strong nuclear force. Not only does accounting for this effect fix the problem, it allows us to get a rough measure of the strength of the strong nuclear force. From these considerations we can learn several immensely important facts about nature, as we’ll see today and in the next post.

Figure 1: Data (black dots) showing R as a function of the collision energy 2Ee. Horizontal colored lines show the three predictions for R in the regions where the data is simple and 3, 4 or 5 of the quarks are produced. The minor jumpiness in the data is due to measurement imperfections.

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Celebrating the Standard Model: Checking The Electric Charges of Quarks

A post for general readers who’ve heard of quarks; if you haven’t, you might find this article useful:

Yesterday I showed you that the usual argument that determines the electric charges of the various types of quarks uses circular reasoning and has a big loophole in it. (The up quark, for example, has charge 2/3, but the usual argument would actually allow it to have any charge!) But today I’m going to show you how this loophole can easily be closed — and we’ll need only addition, subtraction and fractions to close it.

Throughout this post I’ll shorten “electric charge” to just “charge”.

A Different Way to Check Quark Charges

Our approach will be to study the process in which an electron and a positron (the electron’s anti-particle) collide, disappear (“annihilate”), and are converted into one or another type of quark and the corresponding anti-quark; see Figure 1. The rate for this process to occur, and the rate of a similar one in which a muon and anti-muon are produced, are all we will need to know.

In an electron-positron collision, many things may happen. Among the possibilities, the electron and positron may be converted into two new particles. The new particles may have much more mass (specifically, rest mass) than the electron and positron do, if the collision is energetic enough. This is why physicists can use collisions of particles with small mass to discover unknown particles with large mass.

Figure 1: (Top) an electron and positron, each carrying energy Ee, collide head-on. (Bottom) from the collision with total energy 2Ee , a quark and anti-quark may emerge, as long as Ee is bigger than the quark’s rest mass M times c2.

In particular, for any quark of mass M, it is possible for an electron-positron collision to produce that quark and a corresponding anti-quark as long as the electron’s energy Ee is greater than the quark’s mass-energy Mc2. As Ee is gradually increased from low values, more and more types of quark/anti-quark pairs can be produced.

This turns out to be a particularly interesting observation in the range where 1 GeV < Ee < 10 GeV, i.e. when the total collision energy (2 Ee) is between 2 and 20 GeV. If Ee is any lower, the effects of the strong nuclear force make the production of quarks extremely complicated (as we’ll see in another post). But when the collision energy is above 2 GeV, things start to settle down, and become both simple and interesting.

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Celebrating the Standard Model: The Electric Charges of Quarks

A post for general readers who’ve heard of quarks; if you haven’t, try reading here:

The universe has six types of quarks, some of which are found in protons and neutrons, and thus throughout all ordinary material. For no good reasons, we call them up, down, strange, charm, bottom and top. Today and tomorrow I want to show you how we know their electric charges, even though we can’t measure them directly. The only math we’ll need is addition, subtraction, and fractions.

This also intersects with my most recent post in this series on the Standard Model, which explained how we know that each type of quark comes in three “colors”, or versions — each one a type of strong nuclear charge akin to electric charge.

Today we’ll review the usual lore that you can find in any book or on any website, but we’ll see that there’s a big loophole in the lore that we need to close. Tomorrow we’ll use a clever method to close that loophole and verify the lore is really true.

The Lore for Protons and Neutrons

Physicists usually define electric charge so that

  • the proton has electric charge +1
  • the electron has charge -1,
  • the neutron has charge 0 (i.e. electrically neutral, hence its name).

[Throughout the remainder of this post, I’ll abbreviate “electric charge” as simply “charge“.]

As for the six types of quarks, the lore is that their charges are [using notation that “Qu” means “electric charge of the u quark“]:

  • Up, Charm, Top (u,c,t): Qu = Qc = Qt = 2/3
  • Down, Strange, Bottom (d,s,b): Qd = Qs = Qb = -1/3

But how do we know this?

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