I mean that literally. True, you aren’t a 7,000 ton assembly of wires and silicon, like the ATLAS experiment inside the Large Hadron Collider. You aren’t managed by thousands of scientists and engineers, trying to sift through data from a billion pairs of protons smashing into each other every second. Nonetheless, you are a particle detector. Your senses detect particles.
Your ears take vibrations in the air and magnify them, vibrating the fluid of your inner ear. Tiny hairs communicate that vibration to your nerves, which signal your brain. Particle detectors, too, magnify signals: photomultipliers take a single particle of light (called a photon) and set off a cascade, multiplying the signal one hundred million times so it can be registered by a computer.
Your nose and tongue are sensitive to specific chemicals, recognizing particular shapes and ignoring others. A particle detector must also be picky. A detector like ATLAS measures far more particle collisions than it could ever record. Instead, it learns to recognize particular “shapes”, collisions that might hold evidence of something interesting. Only those collisions are recorded, passed along to computer centers around the world.
Your sense of touch tells you something about the energy of a collision: specifically, the energy things have when they collide with you. Particle detectors do this with calorimeters, that generate signals based on a particle’s energy. Different parts of your body are more sensitive than others: your mouth and hands are much more sensitive than your back and shoulders. Different parts of a particle detector have different calorimeters: an electromagnetic calorimeter for particles like electrons, and a less sensitive hadronic calorimeter that can catch particles like protons.
You are most like a particle detector, though, in your eyes. The cells of your eyes, rods and cones, detect light, and thus detect photons. Your eyes are more sensitive than you think: you are likely able to detect even a single photon. In an experiment, three people sat in darkness for forty minutes, then heard two sounds, one of which might come accompanied by a single photon of light flashed into their eye. The three didn’t notice the photons every time, that’s not possible for such a small sensation: but they did much better than a random guess.
(You can be even more literal than that. An older professor here told me stories of the early days of particle physics. To check that a machine was on, sometimes physicists would come close, and watch for flashes in the corner of their vision: a sign of electrons flying through their eyeballs!)
You are a particle detector, but you aren’t just a particle detector. A particle detector can’t move, its thousands of tons are fixed in place. That gives it blind spots: for example, the tube that the particles travel through is clear, with no detectors in it, so the particle can get through. Physicists have to account for this, correcting for the missing space in their calculations. In contrast, if you have a blind spot, you can act: move, and see the world from a new point of view. You observe not merely a series of particles, but the results of your actions: what happens when you turn one way or another, when you make one choice or another.
So while you are a particle detector, what’s more, you’re a particle experiment. You can learn a lot more than those big heaps of wires and silicon could on their own. You’re like the whole scientific effort: colliders and detectors, data centers and scientists around the world. May you learn as much in your life as the experiments do in theirs.
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.
Last week’s post came up on Reddit, where a commenter made a good point. I said that one of the mysteries of neutrinos is that they might not get their mass from the Higgs boson. This is true, but the commenter rightly points out it’s true of other particles too: electrons might not get their mass from the Higgs. We aren’t sure. The lighter quarks might not get their mass from the Higgs either.
When talking physics with the public, we usually say that electrons and quarks all get their mass from the Higgs. That’s how it works in our Standard Model, after all. But even though we’ve found the Higgs boson, we can’t be 100% sure that it functions the way our model says. That’s because there are aspects of the Higgs we haven’t been able to measure directly. We’ve measured how it affects the heaviest quark, the top quark, but measuring its interactions with other particles will require a bigger collider. Until we have those measurements, the possibility remains open that electrons and quarks get their mass another way. It would be a more complicated way: we know the Higgs does a lot of what the model says, so if it deviates in another way we’d have to add more details, maybe even more undiscovered particles. But it’s possible.
If I wanted to defend the idea that neutrinos are special here, I would point out that neutrino masses, unlike electron masses, are not part of the Standard Model. For electrons, we have a clear “default” way for them to get mass, and that default is in a meaningful way simpler than the alternatives. For neutrinos, every alternative is complicated in some fashion: either adding undiscovered particles, or unusual properties. If we were to invoke Occam’s Razor, the principle that we should always choose the simplest explanation, then for electrons and quarks there is a clear winner. Not so for neutrinos.
I’m not actually going to make this argument. That’s because I’m a bit wary of using Occam’s Razor when it comes to questions of fundamental physics. Occam’s Razor is a good principle to use, if you have a good idea of what’s “normal”. In physics, you don’t.
There are three men on a train. One of them is an economist and one of them is a logician and one of them is a mathematician. And they have just crossed the border into Scotland (I don’t know why they are going to Scotland) and they see a brown cow standing in a field from the window of the train (and the cow is standing parallel to the train). And the economist says, ‘Look, the cows in Scotland are brown.’ And the logician says, ‘No. There are cows in Scotland of which at least one is brown.’ And the mathematician says, ‘No. There is at least one cow in Scotland, of which one side appears to be brown.’
If we want to be as careful as possible, the mathematician’s answer is best. But we expect not to have to be so careful. Maybe the economist’s answer, that Scottish cows are brown, is too broad. But we could imagine an agronomist who states “There is a breed of cows in Scotland that is brown”. And I suggest we should find that pretty reasonable. Essentially, we’re using Occam’s Razor: if we want to explain seeing a brown half-cow from a train, the simplest explanation would be that it’s a member of a breed of cows that are brown. It would be less simple if the cow were unique, a brown mutant in a breed of black and white cows. It would be even less simple if only one side of the cow were brown, and the other were another color.
When we use Occam’s Razor in this way, we’re drawing from our experience of cows. Most of the cows we meet are members of some breed or other, with similar characteristics. We don’t meet many mutant cows, or half-colored cows, so we think of those options as less simple, and less likely.
But what kind of experience tells us which option is simpler for electrons, or neutrinos?
The Standard Model is a type of theory called a Quantum Field Theory. We have experience with other Quantum Field Theories: we use them to describe materials, metals and fluids and so forth. Still, it seems a bit odd to say that if something is typical of these materials, it should also be typical of the universe. As another physicists in my sub-field, Nima Arkani-Hamed, likes to say, “the universe is not a crappy metal!”
We could also draw on our experience from other theories in physics. This is a bit more productive, but has other problems. Our other theories are invariably incomplete, that’s why we come up with new theories in the first place…and with so few theories, compared to breeds of cows, it’s unclear that we really have a good basis for experience.
Physicists like to brag that we study the most fundamental laws of nature. Ordinarily, this doesn’t matter as much as we pretend: there’s a lot to discover in the rest of science too, after all. But here, it really makes a difference. Unlike other fields, we don’t know what’s “normal”, so we can’t really tell which theories are “simpler” than others. We can make aesthetic judgements, on the simplicity of the math or the number of fields or the quality of the stories we can tell. If we want to be principled and forego all of that, then we’re left on an abyss, a world of bare observations and parameter soup.
If a physicist looks out a train window, will they say that all the electrons they see get their mass from the Higgs? Maybe, still. But they should be careful about it.
When you look into your mirror in the morning, the face looking back at you isn’t exactly your own. Your mirror image is flipped: left-handed if you’re right-handed, and right-handed if you’re left-handed. Your body is not symmetric in the mirror: we say it does not respect parity symmetry. Zoom in, and many of the molecules in your body also have a “handedness” to them: biology is not the same when flipped in a mirror.
What about physics? At first, you might expect the laws of physics themselves to respect parity symmetry. Newton’s laws are the same when reflected in a mirror, and so are Maxwell’s. But one part of physics breaks this rule: the weak nuclear force, the force that causes nuclear beta decay. The weak nuclear force interacts differently with “right-handed” and “left-handed” particles (shorthand for particles that spin counterclockwise or clockwise with respect to their motion). This came as a surprise to most physicists, but it was predicted by Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang and demonstrated in 1956 by Chien-Shiung Wu, known in her day as the “Queen of Nuclear Research”. The world really does look different when flipped in a mirror.
I gave a lecture on the weak force for the pedagogy course I took a few weeks back. One piece of feedback I got was that the topic wasn’t very relatable. People wanted to know why they should care about the handedness of the weak force, they wanted to hear about “real-life” applications. Once scientists learned that the weak force didn’t respect parity, what did that let us do?
Thinking about this, I realized this is actually a pretty tricky story to tell. With enough time and background, I could explain that the “handedness” of the Standard Model is a major constraint on attempts to unify physics, ruling out a lot of the simpler options. That’s hard to fit in a short lecture though, and it still isn’t especially close to “real life”.
Then I realized I don’t need to talk about “real life” to give a “real-life example”. People explaining relativity get away with science fiction scenarios, spaceships on voyages to black holes. The key isn’t to be familiar, just relatable. If I can tell a story (with people in it), then maybe I can make this work.
All I need, then, is a person who cares a lot about the world behind a mirror.
In order to make this story work, we have to get Alice to care about the weak nuclear force. The most familiar thing the weak force does is cause beta decay. And the most familiar thing that undergoes beta decay is a banana. Bananas contain radioactive potassium, which can transform to calcium by emitting an electron and an anti-electron-neutrino.
The radioactive potassium from a banana doesn’t stay in the body very long, only a few hours at most. But if Alice was especially paranoid about radioactivity, maybe she would want to avoid eating bananas. (We shouldn’t tell her that other foods contain potassium too.) If so, she might view the looking glass as a golden opportunity, a chance to eat as many bananas as she likes without worrying about radiation.
Does this work?
A first problem: can Alice even eat mirror-reversed bananas? I told you many biological molecules have handedness, which led Alan Moore’s version of Alice to starve. If we assume, unlike Moore, that Alice comes back in her original configuration and survives, we should still ask if she gets any benefit out of the bananas in the looking glass.
Researching this, I found that the main thing that makes bananas taste “banana-ish”, isoamyl acetate, does not have handedness: mirror bananas will still taste like bananas. Fructose, a sugar in bananas, does have handedness however: it isn’t the same when flipped in a mirror. Chatting with a chemist, the impression I got was that this isn’t a total loss: often, flipping a sugar results in another, different sugar. A mirror banana might still taste sweet, but less so. Overall, it may still be worth eating.
The next problem is a tougher one: flipping a potassium atom doesn’t actually make it immune to the weak force. The weak force only interacts with left-handed particles and right-handed antiparticles: in beta decay, it transforms a left-handed down quark to a left-handed up quark, producing a left-handed electron and a right-handed anti-neutrino.
Alice would have been fine if all of the quarks in potassium were left-handed, but they aren’t: an equal amount are right-handed, so the mirror weak force will still act on them, and they will still undergo beta decay. Actually, it’s worse than that: quarks, and massive particles in general, don’t actually have a definite handedness. If you speed up enough to catch up to a quark and pass it, then from your perspective it’s now going in the opposite direction, and its handedness is flipped. The only particles with definite handedness are massless particles: those go at the speed of light, so you can never catch up to them. Another way to think about this is that quarks get their mass from the Higgs field, and this happens because the Higgs lets left- and right-handed quarks interact. What we call the quark’s mass is in some sense just left- and right-handed quarks constantly mixing back and forth.
It turns out there’s a problem with even this scheme, though. The problem is a much wider one: the whole story is physically inconsistent.
I’d been acting like Alice can pass back and forth through the mirror, carrying all her particles with her. But what are “her particles”? If she carries a banana through the mirror, you might imagine the quarks in the potassium atoms carry over. But those quarks are constantly exchanging other quarks and gluons, as part of the strong force holding them together. They’re also exchanging photons with electrons via the electromagnetic force, and they’re also exchanging W bosons via beta decay. In quantum field theory, all of this is in some sense happening at once, an infinite sum over all possible exchanges. It doesn’t make sense to just carve out one set of particles and plug them in to different fields somewhere else.
If we actually wanted to describe a mirror like Alice’s looking glass in physics, we’d want to do it consistently. This is similar to how physicists think of time travel: you can’t go back in time and murder your grandparents because your whole path in space-time has to stay consistent. You can only go back and do things you “already did”. We treat space in a similar way to time. A mirror like Alice’s imposes a condition, that fields on one side are equal to their mirror image on the other side. Conditions like these get used in string theory on occasion, and they have broad implications for physics on the whole of space-time, not just near the boundary. The upshot is that a world with a mirror like Alice’s in it would be totally different from a world without the looking glass: the weak force as we know it would not exist.
So unfortunately, I still don’t have a good “real life” story for a class about parity symmetry. It’s fun trying to follow Alice through a parity transformation, but there are a few too many problems for the tale to make any real sense. Feel free to suggest improvements!
For a long time, physicists only knew about two fundamental forces: electromagnetism, and gravity. Physics students follow the same path, studying Newtonian gravity, then E&M, and only later learning about the other fundamental forces. If you’ve just recently heard about the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force, it can be tempting to think of them as just slight tweaks on electromagnetism. But while that can be a helpful way to start, in a way it’s precisely backwards. Electromagnetism is simpler than the other forces, that’s true. But because of that simplicity, it’s actually pretty weird as a force.
The weirdness of electromagnetism boils down to one key reason: the electromagnetic field has no charge.
Maybe that sounds weird to you: if you’ve done anything with electromagnetism, you’ve certainly seen charges. But while you’ve calculated the field produced by a charge, the field itself has no charge. You can specify the positions of some electrons and not have to worry that the electric field will introduce new charges you didn’t plan. Mathematically, this means your equations are linear in the field, and thus not all that hard to solve.
The other forces are different. The strong nuclear force has three types of charge, dubbed red, green, and blue. Not just quarks, but the field itself has charges under this system, making the equations that describe it non-linear.
Those properties mean that you can’t just think of the strong force as a push or pull between charges, like you could with electromagnetism. The strong force doesn’t just move quarks around, it can change their color, exchanging charge between the quark and the field. That’s one reason why when we’re more careful we refer to it as not the strong force, but the strong interaction.
The weak force also makes more sense when thought of as an interaction. It can change even more properties of particles, turning different flavors of quarks and leptons into each other, resulting in among other phenomena nuclear beta decay. It would be even more like the strong force, but the Higgs field screws that up, stirring together two more fundamental forces and spitting out the weak force and electromagnetism. The result ties them together in weird ways: for example, it means that the weak field can actually have an electric charge.
Interactions like the strong and weak forces are much more “normal” for particle physicists: if you ask us to picture a random fundamental force, chances are it will look like them. It won’t typically look like electromagnetism, the weird “degenerate” case with a field that doesn’t even have a charge. So despite how familiar electromagnetism may be to you, don’t take it as your model of what a fundamental force should look like: of all the forces, it’s the simplest and weirdest.
Physicists talk a lot about fundamental particles. But what do we mean by fundamental?
The Ancient Greek philosopher Democritus thought the world was composed of fundamental indivisible objects, constantly in motion. He called these objects “atoms”, and believed they could never be created or destroyed, with every other phenomenon explained by different types of interlocking atoms.
The things we call atoms today aren’t really like this, as you probably know. Atoms aren’t indivisible: their electrons can be split from their nuclei, and with more energy their nuclei can be split into protons and neutrons. More energy yet, and protons and neutrons can in turn be split into quarks. Still, at this point you might wonder: could quarks be Democritus’s atoms?
In a word, no. Nonetheless, quarks are, as far as we know, fundamental particles. As it turns out, our “fundamental” is very different from Democritus’s. Our fundamental particles can transform.
Think about beta decay. You might be used to thinking of it in terms of protons and neutrons: an unstable neutron decays, becoming a proton, an electron, and an (electron-anti-)neutrino. You might think that when the neutron decays, it literally “decays”, falling apart into smaller pieces.
But when you look at the quarks, the neutron’s smallest pieces, that isn’t the picture at all. In beta decay, a down quark in the neutron changes, turning into an up quark and an unstable W boson. The W boson then decays into an electron and a neutrino, while the up quark becomes part of the new proton. Even looking at the most fundamental particles we know, Democritus’s picture of unchanging atoms just isn’t true.
Could there be some even lower level of reality that works the way Democritus imagined? It’s not impossible. But the key insight of modern particle physics is that there doesn’t need to be.
When we ask which particles are fundamental, we’re asking what quantum fields we need to describe reality. We’re asking for the simplest explanation, the simplest mathematical model, that’s consistent with everything we could observe. So “fundamental” doesn’t end up meaning indivisible, or unchanging. It’s fundamental like an axiom: used to derive the rest.
There are a lot of people who think theoretical physics has gone off-track, though very few of them agree on exactly how. Some think that string theory as a whole is a waste of time, others that the field just needs to pay more attention to their preferred idea. Some think we aren’t paying enough attention to the big questions, or that we’re too focused on “safe” ideas like supersymmetry, even when they aren’t working out. Some think the field needs less focus on mathematics, while others think it needs even more.
Usually, people act on these opinions by writing strongly worded articles and blog posts. Sometimes, they have more power, and act with money, creating grants and prizes that only go to their preferred areas of research.
Let’s put the question of whether the field actually needs to change aside for the moment. Even if it does, I’m skeptical that this sort of thing will have any real effect. While grants and blogs may be very good at swaying experimentalists, theorists are likely to be harder to shift, due to what I’m going to call the Theorist Exclusion Principle.
The Pauli Exclusion Principle is a rule from quantum mechanics that states that two fermions (particles with half-integer spin) can’t occupy the same state. Fermions include electrons, quarks, protons…essentially, all the particles that make up matter. Many people learn about the Pauli Exclusion Principle first in a chemistry class, where it explains why electrons fall into different energy levels in atoms: once one energy level “fills up”, no more electrons can occupy the same state, and any additional electrons are “excluded” and must occupy a different energy level.
Those 1s electrons are such a clique!
In contrast, bosons (like photons, or the Higgs) can all occupy the same state. It’s what allows for things like lasers, and it’s why all the matter we’re used to is made out of fermions: because fermions can’t occupy the same state as each other, as you add more fermions the structures they form have to become more and more complicated.
Experimentalists are a little like bosons. While you can’t stuff two experimentalists into the same quantum state, you can get them working on very similar projects. They can form large collaborations, with each additional researcher making the experiment that much easier. They can replicate eachother’s work, making sure it was accurate. They can take some physical phenomenon and subject it to a battery of tests, so that someone is bound to learn something.
Theorists, on the other hand, are much more like fermions. In theory, there’s very little reason to work on something that someone else is already doing. Replication doesn’t mean very much: the purest theory involves mathematical proofs, where replication is essentially pointless. Theorists do form collaborations, but they don’t have the same need for armies of technicians and grad students that experimentalists do. With no physical objects to work on, there’s a limit to how much can be done pursuing one particular problem, and if there really are a lot of options they can be pursued by one person with a cluster.
Like fermions, then, theorists expand to fill the projects available. If an idea is viable, someone will probably work on it, and once they do, there isn’t much reason for someone else to do the same thing.
This makes theory a lot harder to influence than experiment. You can write the most beautiful thinkpiece possible to persuade theorists to study the deep questions of the universe, but if there aren’t any real calculations available nothing will change. Contrary to public perception, theoretical physicists aren’t paid to just sit around thinking all day: we calculate, compute, and publish, and if a topic doesn’t lend itself to that then we won’t get much mileage out of it. And no matter what you try to preferentially fund with grants, mostly you’ll just get people re-branding what they’re already doing, shifting a few superficial details to qualify.
Theorists won’t occupy the same states, so if you want to influence theorists you need to make sure there are open states where you’re trying to get them to go. Historically, theorists have shifted when new states have opened up: new data from experiment that needed a novel explanation, new mathematical concepts that opened up new types of calculations. You want there to be fewer string theorists, or more focus on the deep questions? Give us something concrete to do, and I guarantee you’ll get theorists flooding in.
No, they haven’t, and no, that’s not what they found, and no, that doesn’t make sense.
Quantum field theory is how we understand particle physics. Each fundamental particle comes from a quantum field, a law of nature in its own right extending across space and time. That’s why it’s so momentous when we detect a fundamental particle, like the Higgs, for the first time, why it’s not just like discovering a new species of plant.
That’s not the only thing quantum field theory is used for, though. Quantum field theory is also enormously important in condensed matter and solid state physics, the study of properties of materials.
When studying materials, you generally don’t want to start with fundamental particles. Instead, you usually want to think about overall properties, ways the whole material can move and change overall. If you want to understand the quantum properties of these changes, you end up describing them the same way particle physicists talk about fundamental fields: you use quantum field theory.
In particle physics, particles come from vibrations in fields. In condensed matter, your fields are general properties of the material, but they can also vibrate, and these vibrations give rise to quasiparticles.
Probably the simplest examples of quasiparticles are the “holes” in semiconductors. Semiconductors are materials used to make transistors. They can be “doped” with extra slots for electrons. Electrons in the semiconductor will move around from slot to slot. When an electron moves, though, you can just as easily think about it as a “hole”, an empty slot, that “moved” backwards. As it turns out, thinking about electrons and holes independently makes understanding semiconductors a lot easier, and the same applies to other types of quasiparticles in other materials.
Unfortunately, the article I linked above is pretty impressively terrible, and communicates precisely none of that.
The problem starts in the headline:
Scientists have finally discovered massless particles, and they could revolutionise electronics
Scientists have finally discovered massless particles, eh? So we haven’t seen any massless particles before? You can’t think of even one?
After 85 years of searching, researchers have confirmed the existence of a massless particle called the Weyl fermion for the first time ever. With the unique ability to behave as both matter and anti-matter inside a crystal, this strange particle can create electrons that have no mass.
Ah, so it’s a massless fermion, I see. Well indeed, there are no known fundamental massless fermions, not since we discovered neutrinos have mass anyway. The statement that these things “create electrons” of any sort is utter nonsense, however, let alone that they create electrons that themselves have no mass.
Electrons are the backbone of today’s electronics, and while they carry charge pretty well, they also have the tendency to bounce into each other and scatter, losing energy and producing heat. But back in 1929, a German physicist called Hermann Weyl theorised that a massless fermion must exist, that could carry charge far more efficiently than regular electrons.
Ok, no. Just no.
The problem here is that this particular journalist doesn’t understand the difference between pure theory and phenomenology. Weyl didn’t theorize that a massless fermion “must exist”, nor did he say anything about their ability to carry charge. Weyl described, mathematically, how a massless fermion could behave. Weyl fermions aren’t some proposed new fundamental particle, like the Higgs boson: they’re a general type of particle. For a while, people thought that neutrinos were Weyl fermions, before it was discovered that they had mass. What we’re seeing here isn’t some ultimate experimental vindication of Weyl, it’s just an old mathematical structure that’s been duplicated in a new material.
What’s particularly cool about the discovery is that the researchers found the Weyl fermion in a synthetic crystal in the lab, unlike most other particle discoveries, such as the famous Higgs boson, which are only observed in the aftermath of particle collisions. This means that the research is easily reproducible, and scientists will be able to immediately begin figuring out how to use the Weyl fermion in electronics.
Fundamental particles from particle physics, like the Higgs boson, and quasiparticles, like this particular Weyl fermion, are completely different things! Comparing them like this, as if this is some new efficient trick that could have been used to discover the Higgs, just needlessly confuses people.
Weyl fermions are what’s known as quasiparticles, which means they can only exist in a solid such as a crystal, and not as standalone particles. But further research will help scientists work out just how useful they could be. “The physics of the Weyl fermion are so strange, there could be many things that arise from this particle that we’re just not capable of imagining now,” said Hasan.
In the very last paragraph, the author finally mentions quasiparticles. There’s no mention of the fact that they’re more like waves in the material than like fundamental particles, though. From this description, it makes it sound like they’re just particles that happen to chill inside crystals, like they’re agoraphobic or something.
What the scientists involved here actually discovered is probably quite interesting. They’ve discovered a new sort of ripple in the material they studied. The ripple can carry charge, and because it can behave like a massless particle it can carry charge much faster than electrons can. (To get a basic idea as to how this works, think about waves in the ocean. You can have a wave that goes much faster than the ocean’s current. As the wave travels, no actual water molecules travel from one side to the other. Instead, it is the motion that travels, the energy pushing the wave up and down being transferred along.)
There’s no reason to compare this to particle physics, to make it sound like another Higgs boson. This sort of thing dilutes the excitement of actual particle discoveries, perpetuating the misconception of particles as just more species to find and catalog. Furthermore, it’s just completely unnecessary: condensed matter is a very exciting field, one that the majority of physicists work on. It doesn’t need to ride on the coat-tails of particle physics rhetoric in order to capture peoples’ attention. I’ve seen journalists do this kind of thing before, comparing new quasiparticles and composite particles with fundamental particles like the Higgs, and every time I cringe. Don’t you have any respect for the subject you’re writing about?
Isn’t it weird that you can collide two protons, and get something else?
It wouldn’t be so weird if you collided two protons, and out popped a quark. After all, protons are made of quarks. But how, if you collide two protons together, do you get a tau, or the Higgs boson: things that not only aren’t “part of” protons, but are more massive than a proton by themselves?
It seems weird…but in a way, it’s not. When a particle releases another particle that wasn’t inside it to begin with, it’s actually not doing anything more special than an everyday light bulb.
How does a light bulb work?
You probably know the basics: when an electrical current enters the bulb, the electrons in the filament start to move. They heat the filament up, releasing light.
That probably seems perfectly ordinary. But ask yourself for a moment: where did the light come from?
Light is made up of photons, elementary particles in their own right. When you flip a light switch, where do the photons come from? Were they stored in the light bulb?
Silly question, right? You don’t need to “store” light in a light bulb: light bulbs transform one type of energy (electrical, or the movement of electrons) into another type of energy (light, or photons).
The protons at the LHC have a lot of kinetic energy: they’re going 99.9999991% of the speed of light! When they collide, all that energy has to go somewhere. Just like in a light bulb, the fast-moving particles will release their energy in another form. And while that some of that energy will add to the speed of the fragments, much of it will go into the mass and energy of new particles. Some of these particles will be photons, some will be tau leptons, or Higgs bosons…pretty much anything that the protons have enough energy to create.
So if you want to understand how to create new particles, you don’t need a deep understanding of the mysteries of quantum field theory. Just turn on the lights.
As such, several prominent people in the physics community have put their hopes on China. The country’s somewhat autocratic nature means that getting funding for a collider is a matter of convincing a few powerful people, not a whole fractious gaggle of legislators. It’s a cynical choice, but if it keeps the field alive so be it.
If China was planning a super collider, then, that would be great news!
Too bad it’s not.
Buried eight paragraphs in to Nature’s article we find the following:
The Chinese government is yet to agree on any funding, but growing economic confidence in the country has led its scientists to believe that the political climate is ripe, says Nick Walker, an accelerator physicist at DESY, Germany’s high-energy physics laboratory in Hamburg. Although some technical issues remain, such as keeping down the power demands of an energy-hungry ring, none are major, he adds.
The Chinese government is yet to agree on any funding. China, if by China you mean the Chinese government, is not planning a super collider.
So who is?
Someone must have drawn these diagrams, after all.
Reading the article, the most obvious answer is Beijing’s Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP). While this is true, the article leaves out any mention of a more recently founded site, the Center for Future High Energy Physics (CFHEP).
This is a bit odd, given that CFHEP’s whole purpose is to compose a plan for the next generation of colliders, and persuade China’s government to implement it. They were founded, with heavy involvement from non-Chinese physicists including their director NimaArkani-Hamed, with that express purpose in mind. And since several of the quotes in the article come from Yifang Wang, director of IHEP and member of the advisory board of CFHEP, it’s highly unlikely that this isn’t CFHEP’s plan.
CFHEP’s goal is to convince the Chinese government to build a collider, and what better way to do that than to present them with a fait accompli? If the public thinks that this is “China’s” plan, that wheels are already in motion, wouldn’t it benefit the Chinese government to play along? Throw in a few sweet words about the merits of international collaboration (a big part of the strategy of CFHEP is to bring international scientists to China to show the sort of community a collider could attract) and you’ve got a winning argument, or at least enough plausibility to get US and European funding agencies in a competitive mood.
This…is probably more cynical than what’s actually going on. For one, I don’t even know whether this sort of tactic would work.
Do these guys look like devious manipulators?
Indeed, it might just be a journalistic omission, part of a wider tendency of science journalists to focus on big projects and ignore the interesting part, the nitty-gritty things that people do to push them forward. It’s a shame, because people are what drive the news forward, and as long as science is viewed as something apart from real human beings people are going to continue to mistrust and misunderstand it.
Either way, one thing is clear. The public deserves to hear a lot more about CFHEP.