Category Archives: Quantum Field Theory

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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5th Webpage on the Triplet Model is Up

Advanced particle physics today:

Another page completed on the explanation of the “triplet model,”  (a classic and simple variation on the Standard Model of particle physics, in which the W boson mass can be raised slightly relative to Standard Model predictions without affecting other current experiments.) The math required is still pre-university level, though complex numbers are now becoming important.

The firstsecond and third webpages in this series provided a self-contained introduction that concluded with a full cartoon of the triplet model. On our way to the full SU(2)xU(1) Standard Model, the fourth webpage gave a preliminary explanation of what SU(2) and U(1) are.

Today, the fifth page explains how a U(1)xU(1) Standard Model-like theory would work… and why the photon comes out massless in such a theory. Comments welcome!

Fourth Step in the Triplet Model is up.

Advanced particle physics today:

Today we move deeper into the reader-requested explanation of the “triplet model,”  (a classic and simple variation on the Standard Model of particle physics, in which the W boson mass can be raised slightly relative to Standard Model predictions without affecting other current experiments.) The math required is still pre-university level, though slowly creeping up as complex numbers start to appear.

The firstsecond and third webpages in this series provided a self-contained introduction that concluded with a full cartoon of the triplet model, showing how a small modification of the Higgs mechanism of the Standard Model can shift a “W” particle’s mass upward.

Next, we begin a new phase in which the cartoon is gradually replaced with the real thing. In the new fourth webpage, I start laying the groundwork for understanding how the Standard Model works — in particular how the Higgs boson gives mass to the W and Z bosons, and what SU(2) x U(1) is all about — following which it won’t be hard to explain the triplet model.

Please send your comments and suggestions!

Third step in the Triplet Model is up.

Advanced particle physics today:

Today I’m continuing the reader-requested explanation of the “triplet model,”  (a classic and simple variation on the Standard Model of particle physics, in which the W boson mass can be raised slightly relative to Standard Model predictions without affecting other current experiments.) The math required is pre-university level, just algebra this time.

The third webpage, showing how to combine knowledge from the first page and second page of the series into a more complete cartoon of the triplet model, is ready. It illustrates, in rough form, how a small modification of the Higgs mechanism of the Standard Model can shift a “W” particle’s mass upward.

Future pages will seek to explain why the triplet model resembles this cartoon closely, and also to explore the implications for the Higgs boson. 

Please send your comments and suggestions!

Triplet Model: Second Webpage Complete

Advanced particle physics today:

I’m continuing the reader-requested explanation of the “triplet model,” a classic and simple variation on the Standard Model of particle physics, in which the W boson mass can be raised slightly relative to Standard Model predictions without affecting other current experiments.

The math required is pre-university level, mostly algebra and graphing.

The second webpage, describing what particles are in field theory, and how the particles of one field can obtain mass from a second field, is ready now. In other words, the so-called “Higgs mechanism” for mass generation is sketched on the new page.

Meanwhile the first page (describing what the vacuum of a field theory is and how to find it in simple examples) is here. 

Please send your comments and suggestions, as I will continue to revise the pages in order to improve their clarity.

Triplet Model: First Webpage Complete

Advanced particle physics today:

Based on readers’ requests, I have started the process of explaining the “triplet model,” a classic variation on the Standard Model of particle physics, in which the W boson mass can be raised slightly relative to Standard Model predictions without affecting other current experiments.

The math required is pre-university level, so it should be broadly accessible to those who are interested.

My guess is that I’ll structure the explanation as four or five webpages, and will put up about one a week. The first one, describing what the vacuum of a field theory is and how to find it in simple examples, is here. Please send your comments and suggestions, as I will continue to revise the pages in order to improve their clarity.

A Prediction from String Theory

(An advanced particle physics topic today…)

There have been various intellectual wars over string theory since before I was a graduate student. (Many people in my generation got caught in the crossfire.) But I’ve always taken the point of view that string theory is first and foremost a tool for understanding the universe, and it should be applied just like any other tool: as best as one can, to the widest variety of situations in which it is applicable. 

And it is a powerful tool, one that most certainly makes experimental predictions… even ones for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

These predictions have nothing to do with whether string theory will someday turn out to be the “theory of everything.” (That’s a grandiose term that means something far less grand, namely a “complete set of equations that captures the behavior of spacetime and all its types of particles and fields,” or something like that; it’s certainly not a theory of biology or economics, or even of semiconductors or proteins.)  Such a theory would, presumably, resolve the conceptual divide between quantum physics and general relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravity, and explain a number of other features of the world. But to focus only on this possible application of string theory is to take an unjustifiably narrow view of its value and role.

The issue for today involves the behavior of particles in an unfamiliar context, one which might someday show up (or may already have shown up and been missed) at the LHC or elsewhere. It’s a context that, until 1998 or so, no one had ever thought to ask about, and even if someone had, they’d have been stymied because traditional methods are useless. But then string theory drew our attention to this regime, and showed us that it has unusual features. There are entirely unexpected phenomena that occur there, ones that we can look for in experiments.

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Physics is Broken!!!

Last Thursday, an experiment reported that the magnetic properties of the muon, the electron’s middleweight cousin, are a tiny bit different from what particle physics equations say they should be. All around the world, the headlines screamed: PHYSICS IS BROKEN!!! And indeed, it’s been pretty shocking to physicists everywhere. For instance, my equations are working erratically; many of the calculations I tried this weekend came out upside-down or backwards. Even worse, my stove froze my coffee instead of heating it, I just barely prevented my car from floating out of my garage into the trees, and my desk clock broke and spilled time all over the floor. What a mess!

Broken, eh? When we say a coffee machine or a computer is broken, it means it doesn’t work. It’s unavailable until it’s fixed. When a glass is broken, it’s shattered into pieces. We need a new one. I know it’s cute to say that so-and-so’s video “broke the internet.” But aren’t we going a little too far now? Nothing’s broken about physics; it works just as well today as it did a month ago.

More reasonable headlines have suggested that “the laws of physics have been broken”. That’s better; I know what it means to break a law. (Though the metaphor is imperfect, since if I were to break a state law, I’d be punished, whereas if an object were to break a fundamental law of physics, that law would have to be revised!) But as is true in the legal system, not all physics laws, and not all violations of law, are equally significant.

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