[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 mass — called 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).