A Half Century Since the Birth of QCD

This year marks a half-century since the discovery that a quantum field theory, now known as QCD (quantum chromodynamics), could be the underlying explanation for the strong nuclear force. That’s the force that holds quarks and gluons inside of protons and neutrons, and keeps protons and neutrons clumped together in atomic nuclei. This major step in theoretical physics occurred just a couple of years after it was discovered that a similar quantum field theory for the weak nuclear force (which includes W bosons, a Z boson and a Higgs boson) is mathematically consistent.

With these two breakthroughs came the sudden and unexpected triumph of quantum field theory, emerging as the basic mathematical and conceptual language for understanding the cosmos. It came after two decades in which most experts were convinced that quantum field theory was inconsistent, and only a stepping stone to something deeper.

This week I am in New York City attending two attached scientific meetings, both focused on QCD and other quantum field theories that share its key property, known as “confinement.” One meeting is hosted by New York University, and the other, the Annual Meeting of the Simons Collaboration on Confinement and QCD Strings, by the Simons Foundation. Many luminaries who have spent time on this subject are here together, ranging from David Gross, who co-invented the subject (and was a winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize), to brilliant graduate students who are hoping to reinvent it.

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