When you learn physics in school, you learn it in terms of building blocks.

First, you learn about atoms. Indivisible elements, as the Greeks foretold…until you learn that they aren’t indivisible. You learn that atoms are made of electrons, protons, and neutrons. Then you learn that protons and neutrons aren’t indivisible either, they’re made of quarks. They’re what physicists call composite particles, particles made of other particles stuck together.

Hearing this story, you notice a pattern. Each time physicists find a more fundamental theory, they find that what they thought were indivisible particles are actually composite. So when you hear physicists talking about the next, more fundamental theory, you might guess it has to work the same way. If quarks are made of, for example, strings, then each quark is made of many strings, right?

Nope! As it turns out, there are two different things physicists can mean when they say a particle is “made of” a more fundamental particle. Sometimes they mean the particle is composite, like the proton is made of quarks. But sometimes, like when they say particles are “made of strings”, they mean something different.

To understand what this “something different” is, let’s go back to quarks for a moment. You might have heard there are six types, or flavors, of quarks: up and down, strange and charm, top and bottom. The different types have different mass and electric charge. You might have also heard that quarks come in different colors, red green and blue. You might wonder then, aren’t there really eighteen types of quark? Red up quarks, green top quarks, and so forth?

Physicists don’t think about it that way. Unlike the different flavors, the different colors of quark have a more unified mathematical description. Changing the color of a quark doesn’t change its mass or electric charge. All it changes is how the quark interacts with other particles via the strong nuclear force. Know how one color works, and you know how the other colors work. Different colors can also “mix” together, similarly to how different situations can mix together in quantum mechanics: just as Schrodinger’s cat can be both alive and dead, a quark can be both red and green.

This same kind of thing is involved in another example, electroweak unification. You might have heard that electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force are secretly the same thing. Each force has corresponding particles: the familiar photon for electromagnetism, and W and Z bosons for the weak nuclear force. Unlike the different colors of quarks, photons and W and Z bosons have different masses from each other. It turns out, though, that they still come from a unified mathematical description: they’re “mixtures” (in the same Schrodinger’s cat-esque sense) of the particles from two more fundamental forces (sometimes called “weak isospin” and “weak hypercharge”). The reason they have different masses isn’t their own fault, but the fault of the Higgs: the Higgs field we have in our universe interacts with different parts of this unified force differently, so the corresponding particles end up with different masses.

A physicist might say that electromagnetism and the weak force are “made of” weak isospin and weak hypercharge. And it’s that kind of thing that physicists mean when they say that quarks might be made of strings, or the like: not that quarks are composite, but that quarks and other particles might have a unified mathematical description, and look different only because they’re interacting differently with something else.

This isn’t to say that quarks and electrons can’t be composite as well. They might be, we don’t know for sure. If they are, the forces binding them together must be very strong, strong enough that our most powerful colliders can’t make them wiggle even a little out of shape. The tricky part is that composite particles get mass from the energy holding them together. A particle held together by very powerful forces would normally be very massive, if you want it to end up lighter you have to construct your theory carefully to do that. So while occasionally people will suggest theories where quarks or electrons are composite, these theories aren’t common. Most of the time, if a physicist says that quarks or electrons are “made of ” something else, they mean something more like “particles are made of strings” than like “protons are made of quarks”.