Tag Archives: particle physics

Lessons From Neutrinos, Part II

Last week I talked about the history of neutrinos. Neutrinos come in three types, or “flavors”. Electron neutrinos are the easiest: they’re produced alongside electrons and positrons in the different types of beta decay. Electrons have more massive cousins, called muon and tau particles. As it turns out, each of these cousins has a corresponding flavor of neutrino: muon neutrinos, and tau neutrinos.

For quite some time, physicists thought that all of these neutrinos had zero mass.

(If the idea of a particle with zero mass confuses you, think about photons. A particle with zero mass travels, like a photon, at the speed of light. This doesn’t make them immune to gravity: just as no light can escape a black hole, neither can any other massless particle. It turns out that once you take into account Einstein’s general theory of relativity, gravity cares about energy, not just mass.)

Eventually, physicists started to realize they were wrong, and neutrinos had a small non-zero mass after all. Their reason why might seem a bit strange, though. Physicists didn’t weigh the neutrinos, or measure their speed. Instead, they observed that different flavors of neutrinos transform into each other. We say that they oscillate: electron neutrinos oscillate into muon or tau neutrinos, which oscillate into the other flavors, and so on. Over time, a beam of electron neutrinos will become a beam of mostly tau and muon neutrinos, before becoming a beam of electron neutrinos again.

That might not sound like it has much to do with mass. To understand why it does, you’ll need to learn this post’s lesson:

Lesson 2: Mass is just How Particles Move

Oscillating particles seem like a weird sort of evidence for mass. What would be a more normal kind of evidence?

Those of you who’ve taken physics classes might remember the equation F=ma. Apply a known force to something, see how much it accelerates, and you can calculate its mass. If you’ve had a bit more physics, you’ll know that this isn’t quite the right equation to use for particles close to the speed of light, but that there are other equations we can use in a similar way. In particular, using relativity, we have E^2=p^2 c^2 + m^2 c^4. (At rest, p=0, and we have the famous E=mc^2). This lets us do the same kind of thing: give something a kick and see how it moves.

So let’s say we do that: we give a particle a kick, and measure it later. I’ll visualize this with a tool physicists use called a Feynman diagram. The line represents a particle traveling from one side to the other, from “kick” to “measurement”:

Because we only measure the particle at the end, we might miss if something happens in between. For example, it might interact with another particle or field, like this:

If we don’t know about this other field, then when we try to measure the particle’s mass we will include interactions like this. As it turns out, this is how the Higgs boson works: the Higgs field interacts with particles like electrons and quarks, changing how they move, so that they appear to have mass.

Quantum particles can do other things too. You might have heard people talk about one particle turning into a pair of temporary “virtual particles”. When people say that, they usually have a diagram in mind like this:

In particle physics, we need to take into account every diagram of this kind, every possible thing that could happen in between “kick” and measurement. The final result isn’t one path or another, but a sum of all the different things that could have happened in between. So when we measure the mass of a particle, we’re including every diagram that’s allowed: everything that starts with our “kick” and ends with our measurement.

Now what if our particle can transform, from one flavor to another?

Now we have a new type of thing that can happen in between “kick” and measurement. And if it can happen once, it can happen more than once:

Remember that, when we measure mass, we’re measuring a sum of all the things that can happen in between. That means our particle could oscillate back and forth between different flavors many many times, and we need to take every possibility into account. Because of that, it doesn’t actually make sense to ask what the mass is for one flavor, for just electron neutrinos or just muon neutrinos. Instead, mass is for the thing that actually moves: an average (actually, a quantum superposition) over all the different flavors, oscillating back and forth any number of times.

When a process like beta decay produces an electron neutrino, the thing that actually moves is a mix (again, a superposition) of particles with these different masses. Because each of these masses respond to their initial “kick” in different ways, you see different proportions of them over time. Try to measure different flavors at the end, and you’ll find different ones depending on when and where you measure. That’s the oscillation effect, and that’s why it means that neutrinos have mass.

It’s a bit more complicated to work out the math behind this, but not unreasonably so: it’s simpler than a lot of other physics calculations. Working through the math, we find that by measuring how long it takes neutrinos to oscillate we can calculate the differences between (squares of) neutrino masses. What we can’t calculate are the masses themselves. We know they’re small: neutrinos travel at almost the speed of light, and our cosmological models of the universe have surprisingly little room for massive neutrinos: too much mass, and our universe would look very different than it does today. But we don’t know much more than that. We don’t even know the order of the masses: you might assume electron neutrinos are on average lighter than muon neutrinos, which are lighter than tau neutrinos…but it could easily be the other way around! We also don’t know whether neutrinos get their mass from the Higgs like other particles do, or if they work in a completely different way.

Unlike other mysteries of physics, we’ll likely have the answer to some of these questions soon. People are already picking through the data from current experiments, seeing if they hint towards one order of masses or the other, or to one or the other way for neutrinos to get their mass. More experiments will start taking data this year, and others are expected to start later this decade. At some point, the textbooks may well have more “normal” mass numbers for each of the neutrinos. But until then, they serve as a nice illustration of what mass actually means in particle physics.

Lessons From Neutrinos, Part I

Some of the particles of the Standard Model are more familiar than others. Electrons and photons, of course, everyone has heard of, and most, though not all, have heard of quarks. Many of the rest, like the W and Z boson, only appear briefly in high-energy colliders. But one Standard Model particle is much less exotic, and nevertheless leads to all manner of confusion. That particle is the neutrino.

Neutrinos are very light, much lighter than even an electron. (Until relatively recently, we thought they were completely massless!) They have no electric charge and they don’t respond to the strong nuclear force, so aside from gravity (negligible since they’re so light), the only force that affects them is the weak nuclear force. This force is, well, weak. It means neutrinos can be produced via the relatively ordinary process of radioactive beta decay, but it also means they almost never interact with anything else. Vast numbers of neutrinos pass through you every moment, with no noticeable effect. We need enormous tanks of liquid or chunks of ice to have a chance of catching neutrinos in action.

Because neutrinos are both ordinary and unfamiliar, they tend to confuse people. I’d like to take advantage of this confusion to teach some physics. Neutrinos turn out to be a handy theme to convey a couple blog posts worth of lessons about why physics works the way it does.

I’ll start on the historical side. There’s a lesson that physicists themselves learned in the early days:

Lesson 1: Don’t Throw out a Well-Justified Conservation Law

In the early 20th century, physicists were just beginning to understand radioactivity. They could tell there were a few different types: gamma decay released photons in the form of gamma rays, alpha decay shot out heavy, positively charged particles, and beta decay made “beta particles”, or electrons. For each of these, physicists could track each particle and measure its energy and momentum. Everything made sense for gamma and alpha decay…but not for beta decay. Somehow, they could add up the energy of each of the particles they could track, and find less at the end than they did at the beginning. It was as if energy was not conserved.

These were the heady early days of quantum mechanics, so people were confused enough that many thought this was the end of the story. Maybe energy just isn’t conserved? Wolfgang Pauli, though, thought differently. He proposed that there had to be another particle, one that no-one could detect, that made energy balance out. It had to be neutral, so he called it the neutron…until two years later when James Chadwick discovered the particle we call the neutron. This was much too heavy to be Pauli’s neutron, so Edoardo Amaldi joked that Pauli’s particle was a “neutrino” instead. The name stuck, and Pauli kept insisting his neutrino would turn up somewhere. It wasn’t until 1956 that neutrinos were finally detected, so for quite a while people made fun of Pauli for his quixotic quest.

Including a Faust parody with Gretchen as the neutrino

In retrospect, people should probably have known better. Conservation of energy isn’t one of those rules that come out of nowhere. It’s deeply connected to time, and to the idea that one can perform the same experiment at any time in history and find the same result. While rules like that sometimes do turn out wrong, our first expectation should be that they won’t. Nowadays, we’re confident enough in energy conservation that we plan to use it to detect other particles: it was the main way the Large Hadron Collider planned to try to detect dark matter.

As we came to our more modern understanding, physicists started writing up the Standard Model. Neutrinos were thought of as massless, like photons, traveling at the speed of light. Now, we know that neutrinos have mass…but we don’t know how much mass they have. How do we know they have mass then? To understand that, you’ll need to understand what mass actually means in physics. We’ll talk about that next week!

Light and Lens, Collider and Detector

Why do particle physicists need those enormous colliders? Why does it take a big, expensive, atom-smashing machine to discover what happens on the smallest scales?

A machine like the Large Hadron Collider seems pretty complicated. But at its heart, it’s basically just a huge microscope.

Familiar, right?

If you’ve ever used a microscope in school, you probably had one with a light switch. Forget to turn on the light, and you spend a while confused about why you can’t see anything before you finally remember to flick the switch. Just like seeing something normally, seeing something with a microscope means that light is bouncing off that thing and hitting your eyes. Because of this, microscopes are limited by the wavelength of the light that they use. Try to look at something much smaller than that wavelength and the image will be too blurry to understand.

To see smaller details then, people use light with smaller wavelengths. Using massive X-ray producing machines called synchrotrons, scientists can study matter on the sub-nanometer scale. To go further, scientists can take advantage of wave-particle duality, and use electrons instead of light. The higher the energy of the electrons, the smaller their wavelength. The best electron microscopes can see objects measured in angstroms, not just nanometers.

Less familiar?

A particle collider pushes this even further. The Large Hadron Collider accelerates protons until they have 6.5 Tera-electron-Volts of energy. That might be an unfamiliar type of unit, but if you’ve seen it before you can run the numbers, and estimate that this means the LHC can sees details below the attometer scale. That’s a quintillionth of a meter, or a hundred million times smaller than an atom.

A microscope isn’t just light, though, and a collider isn’t just high-energy protons. If it were, we could just wait and look at the sky. So-called cosmic rays are protons and other particles that travel to us from outer space. These can have very high energy: protons with similar energy to those in the LHC hit our atmosphere every day, and rays have been detected that were millions of times more powerful.

People sometimes ask why we can’t just use these cosmic rays to study particle physics. While we can certainly learn some things from cosmic rays, they have a big limitation. They have the “light” part of a microscope, but not the “lens”!

A microscope lens magnifies what you see. Starting from a tiny image, the lens blows it up until it’s big enough that you can see it with your own eyes. Particle colliders have similar technology, using their particle detectors. When two protons collider inside the LHC, they emit a flurry of other particles: photons and electrons, muons and mesons. Each of these particles is too small to see, let alone distinguish with the naked eye. But close to the collision there are detector machines that absorb these particles and magnify their signal. A single electron hitting one of these machines triggers a cascade of more and more electrons, in proportion to the energy of the electron that entered the machine. In the end, you get a strong electrical signal, which you can record with a computer. There are two big machines that do this at the Large Hadron Collider, each with its own independent scientific collaboration to run it. They’re called ATLAS and CMS.

The different layers of the CMS detector, magnifying signals from different types of particles.

So studying small scales needs two things: the right kind of “probe”, like light or protons, and a way to magnify the signal, like a lens or a particle detector. That’s hard to do without a big expensive machine…unless nature is unusually convenient. One interesting possibility is to try to learn about particle physics via astronomy. In the Big Bang particles collided with very high energy, and as the universe has expanded since then those details have been magnified across the sky. That kind of “cosmological collider” has the potential to teach us about physics at much smaller scales than any normal collider could reach. A downside is that, unlike in a collider, we can’t run the experiment over and over again: our “cosmological collider” only ran once. Still, if we want to learn about the very smallest scales, some day that may be our best option.

Alice Through the Parity Glass

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.

Curiouser and curiouser…

When Alice goes through the looking glass in the novel of that name, she enters a world flipped left-to-right, a world with its parity inverted. Following Alice, we have a natural opportunity to explore such a world. Others have used this to explore parity symmetry in biology: for example, a side-plot in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen sees Alice come back flipped, and starve when she can’t process mirror-reversed nutrients. I haven’t seen it explored for physics, though.

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.

Alice does have the opportunity to do something interesting here, if she can somehow capture the anti-neutrinos from those bananas. Our world appears to only have left-handed neutrinos and right-handed anti-neutrinos. This seemed reasonable when we thought neutrinos were massless, but now we know neutrinos have a (very small) mass. As a result, the hunt is on for right-handed neutrinos or left-handed anti-neutrinos: if we can measure them, we could fix one of the lingering mysteries of the Standard Model. With this in mind, Alice has the potential to really confuse some particle physicists, giving them some left-handed anti-neutrinos from beyond the looking-glass.

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!

Electromagnetism Is the Weirdest Force

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.

A depiction of a singlet state

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.

Doing Difficult Things Is Its Own Reward

Does antimatter fall up, or down?

Technically, we don’t know yet. The ALPHA-g experiment would have been the first to check this, making anti-hydrogen by trapping anti-protons and positrons in a long tube and seeing which way it falls. While they got most of their setup working, the LHC complex shut down before they could finish. It starts up again next month, so we should have our answer soon.

That said, for most theorists’ purposes, we absolutely do know: antimatter falls down. Antimatter is one of the cleanest examples of a prediction from pure theory that was confirmed by experiment. When Paul Dirac first tried to write down an equation that described electrons, he found the math forced him to add another particle with the opposite charge. With no such particle in sight, he speculated it could be the proton (this doesn’t work, they need the same mass), before Carl D. Anderson discovered the positron in 1932.

The same math that forced Dirac to add antimatter also tells us which way it falls. There’s a bit more involved, in the form of general relativity, but the recipe is pretty simple: we know how to take an equation like Dirac’s and add gravity to it, and we have enough practice doing it in different situations that we’re pretty sure it’s the right way to go. Pretty sure doesn’t mean 100% sure: talk to the right theorists, and you’ll probably find a proposal or two in which antimatter falls up instead of down. But they tend to be pretty weird proposals, from pretty weird theorists.

Ok, but if those theorists are that “weird”, that outside the mainstream, why does an experiment like ALPHA-g exist? Why does it happen at CERN, one of the flagship facilities for all of mainstream particle physics?

This gets at a misconception I occasionally hear from critics of the physics mainstream. They worry about groupthink among mainstream theorists, the physics community dismissing good ideas just because they’re not trendy (you may think I did that just now, for antigravity antimatter!) They expect this to result in a self-fulfilling prophecy where nobody tests ideas outside the mainstream, so they find no evidence for them, so they keep dismissing them.

The mistake of these critics is in assuming that what gets tested has anything to do with what theorists think is reasonable.

Theorists talk to experimentalists, sure. We motivate them, give them ideas and justification. But ultimately, people do experiments because they can do experiments. I watched a talk about the ALPHA experiment recently, and one thing that struck me was how so many different techniques play into it. They make antiprotons using a proton beam from the accelerator, slow them down with magnetic fields, and cool them with lasers. They trap their antihydrogen in an extremely precise vacuum, and confirm it’s there with particle detectors. The whole setup is a blend of cutting-edge accelerator physics and cutting-edge tricks for manipulating atoms. At its heart, ALPHA-g feels like its primary goal is to stress-test all of those tricks: to push the state of the art in a dozen experimental techniques in order to accomplish something remarkable.

And so even if the mainstream theorists don’t care, ALPHA will keep going. It will keep getting funding, it will keep getting visited by celebrities and inspiring pop fiction. Because enough people recognize that doing something difficult can be its own reward.

In my experience, this motivation applies to theorists too. Plenty of us will dismiss this or that proposal as unlikely or impossible. But give us a concrete calculation, something that lets us use one of our flashy theoretical techniques, and the tune changes. If we’re getting the chance to develop our tools, and get a paper out of it in the process, then sure, we’ll check your wacky claim. Why not?

I suspect critics of the mainstream would have a lot more success with this kind of pitch-based approach. If you can find a theorist who already has the right method, who’s developing and extending it and looking for interesting applications, then make your pitch: tell them how they can answer your question just by doing what they do best. They’ll think of it as a chance to disprove you, and you should let them, that’s the right attitude to take as a scientist anyway. It’ll work a lot better than accusing them of hogging the grant money.

Theoretical Uncertainty and Uncertain Theory

Yesterday, Fermilab’s Muon g-2 experiment announced a new measurement of the magnetic moment of the muon, a number which describes how muons interact with magnetic fields. For what might seem like a small technical detail, physicists have been very excited about this measurement because it’s a small technical detail that the Standard Model seems to get wrong, making it a potential hint of new undiscovered particles. Quanta magazine has a great piece on the announcement, which explains more than I will here, but the upshot is that there are two different calculations on the market that attempt to predict the magnetic moment of the muon. One of them, using older methods, disagrees with the experiment. The other, with a new approach, agrees. The question then becomes, which calculation was wrong? And why?

What does it mean for a prediction to match an experimental result? The simple, wrong, answer is that the numbers must be equal: if you predict “3”, the experiment has to measure “3”. The reason why this is wrong is that in practice, every experiment and every prediction has some uncertainty. If you’ve taken a college physics class, you’ve run into this kind of uncertainty in one of its simplest forms, measurement uncertainty. Measure with a ruler, and you can only confidently measure down to the smallest divisions on the ruler. If you measure 3cm, but your ruler has ticks only down to a millimeter, then what you’re measuring might be as large as 3.1cm or as small as 2.9 cm. You just don’t know.

This uncertainty doesn’t mean you throw up your hands and give up. Instead, you estimate the effect it can have. You report, not a measurement of 3cm, but of 3cm plus or minus 1mm. If the prediction was 2.9cm, then you’re fine: it falls within your measurement uncertainty.

Measurements aren’t the only thing that can be uncertain. Predictions have uncertainty too, theoretical uncertainty. Sometimes, this comes from uncertainty on a previous measurement: if you make a prediction based on that experiment that measured 3cm plus or minus 1mm, you have to take that plus or minus into account and estimate its effect (we call this propagation of errors). Sometimes, the uncertainty comes instead from an approximation you’re making. In particle physics, we sometimes approximate interactions between different particles with diagrams, beginning with the simplest diagrams and adding on more complicated ones as we go. To estimate the uncertainty there, we estimate the size of the diagrams we left out, the more complicated ones we haven’t calculated yet. Other times, that approximation doesn’t work, and we need to use a different approximation, treating space and time as a finite grid where we can do computer simulations. In that case, you can estimate your uncertainty based on how small you made your grid. The new approach to predicting the muon magnetic moment uses that kind of approximation.

There’s a common thread in all of these uncertainty estimates: you don’t expect to be too far off on average. Your measurements won’t be perfect, but they won’t all be screwed up in the same way either: chances are, they will randomly be a little below or a little above the truth. Your calculations are similar: whether you’re ignoring complicated particle physics diagrams or the spacing in a simulated grid, you can treat the difference as something small and random. That randomness means you can use statistics to talk about your errors: you have statistical uncertainty. When you have statistical uncertainty, you can estimate, not just how far off you might get, but how likely it is you ended up that far off. In particle physics, we have very strict standards for this kind of thing: to call something new a discovery, we demand that it is so unlikely that it would only show up randomly under the old theory roughly one in a million times. The muon magnetic moment isn’t quite up to our standards for a discovery yet, but the new measurement brought it closer.

The two dueling predictions for the muon’s magnetic moment both estimate some amount of statistical uncertainty. It’s possible that the two calculations just disagree due to chance, and that better measurements or a tighter simulation grid would make them agree. Given their estimates, though, that’s unlikely. That takes us from the realm of theoretical uncertainty, and into uncertainty about the theoretical. The two calculations use very different approaches. The new calculation tries to compute things from first principles, using the Standard Model directly. The risk is that such a calculation needs to make assumptions, ignoring some effects that are too difficult to calculate, and one of those assumptions may be wrong. The older calculation is based more on experimental results, using different experiments to estimate effects that are hard to calculate but that should be similar between different situations. The risk is that the situations may be less similar than expected, their assumptions breaking down in a way that the bottom-up calculation could catch.

None of these risks are easy to estimate. They’re “unknown unknowns”, or rather, “uncertain uncertainties”. And until some of them are resolved, it won’t be clear whether Fermilab’s new measurement is a sign of undiscovered particles, or just a (challenging!) confirmation of the Standard Model.

Redefining Fields for Fun and Profit

When we study subatomic particles, particle physicists use a theory called Quantum Field Theory. But what is a quantum field?

Some people will describe a field in vague terms, and say it’s like a fluid that fills all of space, or a vibrating rubber sheet. These are all metaphors, and while they can be helpful, they can also be confusing. So let me avoid metaphors, and say something that may be just as confusing: a field is the answer to a question.

Suppose you’re interested in a particle, like an electron. There is an electron field that tells you, at each point, your chance of detecting one of those particles spinning in a particular way. Suppose you’re trying to measure a force, say electricity or magnetism. There is an electromagnetic field that tells you, at each point, what force you will measure.

Sometimes the question you’re asking has a very simple answer: just a single number, for each point and each time. An example of a question like that is the temperature: pick a city, pick a date, and the temperature there and then is just a number. In particle physics, the Higgs field answers a question like that: at each point, and each time, how “Higgs-y” is it there and then? You might have heard that the Higgs field gives other particles their mass: what this means is that the more “Higgs-y” it is somewhere, the higher these particles’ mass will be. The Higgs field is almost constant, because it’s very difficult to get it to change. That’s in some sense what the Large Hadron Collider did when they discovered the Higgs boson: pushed hard enough to cause a tiny, short-lived ripple in the Higgs field, a small area that was briefly more “Higgs-y” than average.

We like to think of some fields as fundamental, and others as composite. A proton is composite: it’s made up of quarks and gluons. Quarks and gluons, as far as we know, are fundamental: they’re not made up of anything else. More generally, since we’re thinking about fields as answers to questions, we can just as well ask more complicated, “composite” questions. For example, instead of “what is the temperature?”, we can ask “what is the temperature squared?” or “what is the temperature times the Higgs-y-ness?”.

But this raises a troubling point. When we single out a specific field, like the Higgs field, why are we sure that that field is the fundamental one? Why didn’t we start with “Higgs squared” instead? Or “Higgs plus Higgs squared”? Or something even weirder?

The inventor of the Higgs-squared field, Peter Higgs-squared

That kind of swap, from Higgs to Higgs squared, is called a field redefinition. In the math of quantum field theory, it’s something you’re perfectly allowed to do. Sometimes, it’s even a good idea. Other times, it can make your life quite complicated.

The reason why is that some fields are much simpler than others. Some are what we call free fields. Free fields don’t interact with anything else. They just move, rippling along in easy-to-calculate waves.

Redefine a free field, swapping it for some more complicated function, and you can easily screw up, and make it into an interacting field. An interacting field might interact with another field, like how electromagnetic fields move (and are moved by) electrons. It might also just interact with itself, a kind of feedback effect that makes any calculation we’d like to do much more difficult.

If we persevere with this perverse choice, and do the calculation anyway, we find a surprise. The final results we calculate, the real measurements people can do, are the same in both theories. The field redefinition changed how the theory appeared, quite dramatically…but it didn’t change the physics.

You might think the moral of the story is that you must always choose the right fundamental field. You might want to, but you can’t: not every field is secretly free. Some will be interacting fields, whatever you do. In that case, you can make one choice or another to simplify your life…but you can also just refuse to make a choice.

That’s something quite a few physicists do. Instead of looking at a theory and calling some fields fundamental and others composite, they treat every one of these fields, every different question they could ask, on the same footing. They then ask, for these fields, what one can measure about them. They can ask which fields travel at the speed of light, and which ones go slower, or which fields interact with which other fields, and how much. Field redefinitions will shuffle the fields around, but the patterns in the measurements will remain. So those, and not the fields, can be used to specify the theory. Instead of describing the world in terms of a few fundamental fields, they think about the world as a kind of field soup, characterized by how it shifts when you stir it with a spoon.

It’s not a perspective everyone takes. If you overhear physicists, sometimes they will talk about a theory with only a few fields, sometimes they will talk about many, and you might be hard-pressed to tell what they’re talking about. But if you keep in mind these two perspectives: either a few fundamental fields, or a “field soup”, you’ll understand them a little better.

Reality as an Algebra of Observables

Listen to a physicist talk about quantum mechanics, and you’ll hear the word “observable”. Observables are, intuitively enough, things that can be observed. They’re properties that, in principle, one could measure in an experiment, like the position of a particle or its momentum. They’re the kinds of things linked by uncertainty principles, where the better you know one, the worse you know the other.

Some physicists get frustrated by this focus on measurements alone. They think we ought to treat quantum mechanics, not like a black box that produces results, but as information about some underlying reality. Instead of just observables, they want us to look for “beables“: not just things that can be observed, but things that something can be. From their perspective, the way other physicists focus on observables feels like giving up, like those physicists are abandoning their sacred duty to understand the world. Others, like the Quantum Bayesians or QBists, disagree, arguing that quantum mechanics really is, and ought to be, a theory of how individuals get evidence about the world.

I’m not really going to weigh in on that debate, I still don’t feel like I know enough to even write a decent summary. But I do think that one of the instincts on the “beables” side is wrong. If we focus on observables in quantum mechanics, I don’t think we’re doing anything all that unusual. Even in other parts of physics, we can think about reality purely in terms of observations. Doing so isn’t a dereliction of duty: often, it’s the most useful way to understand the world.

When we try to comprehend the world, we always start alone. From our time in the womb, we have only our senses and emotions to go on. With a combination of instinct and inference we start assembling a consistent picture of reality. Philosophers called phenomenologists (not to be confused with the physicists called phenomenologists) study this process in detail, trying to characterize how different things present themselves to an individual consciousness.

For my point here, these details don’t matter so much. That’s because in practice, we aren’t alone in understanding the world. Based on what others say about the world, we conclude they perceive much like we do, and we learn by their observations just as we learn by our own. We can make things abstract: instead of the specifics of how individuals perceive, we think about groups of scientists making measurements. At the end of this train lie observables: things that we as a community could in principle learn, and share with each other, ignoring the details of how exactly we measure them.

If each of these observables was unrelated, just scattered points of data, then we couldn’t learn much. Luckily, they are related. In quantum mechanics, some of these relationships are the uncertainty principles I mentioned earlier. Others relate measurements at different places, or at different times. The fancy way to refer to all these relationships is as an algebra: loosely, it’s something you can “do algebra with”, like you did with numbers and variables in high school. When physicists and mathematicians want to do quantum mechanics or quantum field theory seriously, they often talk about an “algebra of observables”, a formal way of thinking about all of these relationships.

Focusing on those two things, observables and how they are related, isn’t just useful in the quantum world. It’s an important way to think in other areas of physics too. If you’ve heard people talk about relativity, the focus on measurement screams out, in thought experiments full of abstract clocks and abstract yardsticks. Without this discipline, you find paradoxes, only to resolve them when you carefully track what each person can observe. More recently, physicists in my field have had success computing the chance particles collide by focusing on the end result, the actual measurements people can make, ignoring what might happen in between to cause that measurement. We can then break measurements down into simpler measurements, or use the structure of simpler measurements to guess more complicated ones. While we typically have done this in quantum theories, that’s not really a limitation: the same techniques make sense for problems in classical physics, like computing the gravitational waves emitted by colliding black holes.

With this in mind, we really can think of reality in those terms: not as a set of beable objects, but as a set of observable facts, linked together in an algebra of observables. Paring things down to what we can know in this way is more honest, and it’s also more powerful and useful. Far from a betrayal of physics, it’s the best advantage we physicists have in our quest to understand the world.

Inevitably Arbitrary

Physics is universal…or at least, it aspires to be. Drop an apple anywhere on Earth, at any point in history, and it will accelerate at roughly the same rate. When we call something a law of physics, we expect it to hold everywhere in the universe. It shouldn’t depend on anything arbitrary.

Sometimes, though, something arbitrary manages to sneak in. Even if the laws of physics are universal, the questions we want to answer are not: they depend on our situation, on what we want to know.

The simplest example is when we have to use units. The mass of an electron is the same here as it is on Alpha Centauri, the same now as it was when the first galaxies formed. But what is that mass? We could write it as 9.1093837015×10−31 kilograms, if we wanted to, but kilograms aren’t exactly universal. Their modern definition is at least based on physical constants, but with some pretty arbitrary numbers. It defines the Planck constant as 6.62607015×10−34 Joule-seconds. Chase that number back, and you’ll find references to the Earth’s circumference and the time it takes to turn round on its axis. The mass of the electron may be the same on Alpha Centauri, but they’d never write it as 9.1093837015×10−31 kilograms.

Units aren’t the only time physics includes something arbitrary. Sometimes, like with units, we make a choice of how we measure or calculate something. We choose coordinates for a plot, a reference frame for relativity, a zero for potential energy, a gauge for gauge theories and regularization and subtraction schemes for quantum field theory. Sometimes, the choice we make is instead what we measure. To do thermodynamics we must choose what we mean by a state, to call two substances water even if their atoms are in different places. Some argue a perspective like this is the best way to think about quantum mechanics. In a different context, I’d argue it’s why we say coupling constants vary with energy.

So what do we do, when something arbitrary sneaks in? We have a few options. I’ll illustrate each with the mass of the electron:

  • Make an arbitrary choice, and stick with it: There’s nothing wrong with measuring an electron in kilograms, if you’re consistent about it. You could even use ounces. You just have to make sure that everyone else you compare with is using the same units, or be careful to convert.
  • Make a “natural” choice: Why not set the speed of light and Planck’s constant to one? They come up a lot in particle physics, and all they do is convert between length and time, or time and energy. That way you can use the same units for all of them, and use something convenient, like electron-Volts. They even have electron in the name! Of course they also have “Volt” in the name, and Volts are as arbitrary as any other metric unit. A “natural” choice might make your life easier, but you should always remember it’s still arbitrary.
  • Make an efficient choice: This isn’t always the same as the “natural” choice. The units you choose have an effect on how difficult your calculation is. Sometimes, the best choice for the mass of an electron is “one electron-mass”, because it lets you calculate something else more easily. This is easier to illustrate with other choices: for example, if you have to pick a reference frame for a collision, picking one in which one of the objects is at rest, or where they move symmetrically, might make your job easier.
  • Stick to questions that aren’t arbitrary: No matter what units we use, the electron’s mass will be arbitrary. Its ratios to other masses won’t be though. No matter where we measure, dimensionless ratios like the mass of the muon divided by the mass of the electron, or the mass of the electron divided by the value of the Higgs field, will be the same. If we can make sure to ask only this kind of question, we can avoid arbitrariness. Note that we can think of even a mass in “kilograms” as this kind of question: what’s the ratio of the mass of the electron to “this arbitrary thing we’ve chosen”? In practice though, you want to compare things in the same theory, without the historical baggage of metric.

This problem may seem silly, and if we just cared about units it might be. But at the cutting-edge of physics there are still areas where the arbitrary shows up. Our choices of how to handle it, or how to avoid it, can be crucial to further progress.