Discovering New Elements, Discovering New Particles

In school, you learn that the world around you is made up of chemical elements. There’s oxygen and nitrogen in the air, hydrogen and oxygen in water, sodium and chlorine in salt, and carbon in all living things. Other elements are more rare. Often, that’s because they’re unstable, due to radioactivity, like the plutonium in a bomb or americium in a smoke detector. The heaviest elements are artificial, produced in tiny amounts by massive experiments. In 2002, the heaviest element yet was found at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research near Moscow. It was later named Oganesson, after the scientist who figured out how to make these heavy elements, Yuri Oganessian. To keep track of the different elements, we organize them in the periodic table like this:

In that same school, you probably also learn that the elements aren’t quite so elementary. Unlike the atoms imagined by the ancient Greeks, our atoms are made of smaller parts: protons and neutrons, surrounded by a cloud of electrons. They’re what give the periodic table its periodic structure, the way it repeats from row to row, with each different element having a different number of protons.

If your school is a bit more daring, you also learn that protons and neutrons themselves aren’t elementary. Each one is made of smaller particles called quarks: a proton of two “up quarks” and one “down quark”, and a neutron of two “down” and one “up”. Up quarks, down quarks, and electrons are all what physicists call fundamental particles, and they make up everything you see around you. Just like the chemical elements, some fundamental particles are more obscure than others, and the heaviest ones are all very unstable, produced temporarily by particle collider experiments. The most recent particle to be discovered was in 2012, when the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva found the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson is named after Peter Higgs, one of those who predicted it back in the 60’s. All the fundamental particles we know are part of something called the Standard Model, which we sometimes organize in a table like this:

So far, these stories probably sound similar. The experiments might not even sound that different: the Moscow experiment shoots a beam of high-energy calcium atoms at a target of heavy radioactive elements, while the Geneva one shoots a beam of high-energy protons at another beam of high-energy protons. With all those high-energy beams, what’s the difference really?

In fact there is a big different between chemical elements and fundamental particles, and between the periodic table and the Standard Model. The latter are fundamental, the former are not.

When they made new chemical elements, scientists needed to start with a lot of protons and neutrons. That’s why they used calcium atoms in their beam, and even heavier elements as their target. We know that heavy elements are heavy because they contain more protons and neutrons, and we can use the arrangement of those protons and neutrons to try to predict their properties. That’s why, even though only five or six oganesson atoms have been detected, scientists have some idea what kind of material it would make. Oganesson is a noble gas, like helium, neon, and radon. But calculations predict it is actually a solid at room temperature. What’s more, it’s expected to be able to react with other elements, something the other noble gases are very reluctant to do.

The Standard Model has patterns, just like the chemical elements. Each matter particle is one of three “generations”, each heavier and more unstable: for example, electrons have heavier relatives called muons, and still heavier ones called tauons. But unlike with the elements, we don’t know where these patterns come from. We can’t explain them with smaller particles, like we could explain the elements with protons and neutrons. We think the Standard Model particles might actually be fundamental, not made of anything smaller.

That’s why when we make them, we don’t need a lot of other particles: just two protons, each made of three quarks, is enough. With that, we can make not just new arrangements of quarks, but new particles altogether. Some are even heavier than the protons we started with: the Higgs boson is more than a hundred times as heavy as a proton! We can do this because, in particle physics, mass isn’t conserved: mass is just another type of energy, and you can turn one type of energy into another.

Discovering new elements is hard work, but discovering new particles is on another level. It’s hard to calculate which elements are stable or unstable, and what their properties might be. But we know the rules, and with enough skill and time we could figure it out. In particle physics, we don’t know the rules. We have some good guesses, simple models to solve specific problems, and sometimes, like with the Higgs, we’re right. But despite making many more than five or six Higgs bosons, we still aren’t sure it has the properties we expect. We don’t know the rules. Even with skill and time, we can’t just calculate what to expect. We have to discover it.

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