Dismantling Common Sense, Twice

In my last post I raised a question about the pros and cons of common sense. I left it as a wide-open question, as I was curious to see how readers would react.

Many aspects of common sense affect how we relate to other people, and it’s clear they have considerable value. But the intuitions we have for nature, though sometimes useful, are mostly wrong. These conceptual errors pose obstacles for students who are learning science for the first time.

It’s also interesting that once these students learn first chemistry and then Newtonian-era physics, they gain new intuitions for the natural world, a sort of classical-physics common sense. Much of this newfound common sense also turns out to be wrong: it badly misrepresents how the cosmos really works. This is a difficulty not only for students but also for many adults. If you’ve read about or even taken a class in basic astronomy or physics, it can then be challenging to make sense of twentieth-century physics, where Newtonian intuition can fail badly.

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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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Has a New Force of Nature Been Discovered?

There have been dramatic articles in the news media suggesting that a Nobel Prize has essentially already been awarded for the amazing discovery of a “fifth force.” I thought I’d better throw some cold water on that fire; it’s fine for it to smoulder, but we shouldn’t let it overheat.

There could certainly be as-yet unknown forces waiting to be discovered — dozens of them, perhaps.   So far, there are four well-studied forces: gravity, electricity/magnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force.  Moreover, scientists are already fully confident there is a fifth force, predicted but not yet measured, that is generated by the Higgs field. So the current story would really be about a sixth force.

Roughly speaking, any new force comes with at least one new particle.  That’s because

  • every force arises from a type of field (for instance, the electric force comes from the electromagnetic field, and the predicted Higgs force comes from the Higgs field)
  • and ripples in that type of field are a type of particle (for instance, a minimal ripple in the electromagnetic field is a photon — a particle of light — and a minimal ripple in the Higgs field is the particle known as the Higgs boson.)

The current excitement, such as it is, arises because someone claims to have evidence for a new particle, whose properties would imply a previously unknown force exists in nature.  The force itself has not been looked for, much less discovered.

The new particle, if it really exists, would have a rest mass about 34 times larger than that of an electron — about 1/50th of a proton’s rest mass. In technical terms that means its E=mc² energy is about 17 million electron volts (MeV), and that’s why physicists are referring to it as the X17.  But the question is whether the two experiments that find evidence for it are correct.

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What is the “Strength” of a Force?

Particle physicists, cataloging the fundamental forces of nature, have named two of them the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. [A force is simply any phenomenon that pushes or pulls on objects.] More generally they talk about strong and weak forces, speaking of electromagnetism as rather weak and gravity as extremely weak.  What do the words “strong” and “weak” mean here?  Don’t electric forces become strong at short distances? Isn’t gravity a pretty strong force, given that it makes it hard to lift a bar of gold?

Well, these words don’t mean what you think.  Yes, the electric force between two electrons becomes stronger (in absolute terms) as you bring them closer together; the force grows as one over the square of the distance between them.  Yet physicists, when speaking their own language to each other, will view this behavior as what is expected of a typical force, and so will say that “electromagnetism’s strength is unchanging with distance — and it is rather weak at all distances.

And the strength of gravity between the Earth and a bar of gold isn’t relevant either; physicists are interested in the strength of forces between individual elementary (or at least small) particles, not between large objects containing enormous numbers of particles.

Clearly there is a language difference here… as is often the case with words in English and words in Physics-ese.  It requires translation.  So I have now written an article explaining the language of “strong” and “weak” forces used by particle physicists, describing how it works, why it is useful, and what it teaches us about the known forces: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and the (still unobserved but surely present) Higgs force.

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