My Interest in Particle Physics
Discovering the fundamental building blocks of matter, energy and forces
What is the nature of matter at the sub-atomic level and the forces that act on it?
What are the answers today and expected results tomorrow?
Matter may be made up of nothing more than tiny 'strings' of vibrating energy - if you believe in string theory (which is hard to test for but may indeed be testable soon). If the classical 'standard model' is the final word then matter is still pretty much an illusion as atoms are hollow (except for the tiny nucleus in their centers), and then the protons and neutrons that make up the nucleus are themselves hollow too (except for the tiny quarks in their centers), and even the quarks and neutrinos aren't likely made up of much either (they are so small we can't tell what they really are).
So that stuff we call 'matter' that seems hard to us is really just a bunch of nothing and all we are feeling is the atomic forces that are keeping the atomic and sub-atomic particles separated from each other. After all, all of the matter in the entire universe somehow started out as a tiny 'singularity' (or something close to it) - therefore a lot of nothing can squish down into a pretty tiny volume if enough force is applied.
Tests starting in 2008 using the new European Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerator and collider located at CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, is hoped will produce the elusive Higgs boson — often dubbed the God Particle — the observation of which could confirm the predictions and 'missing links' in the Standard Model of physics, and explain how other elementary particles acquire properties such as mass. The verification of the existence of the Higgs boson would be a significant step in the search for a Grand Unified Theory which seeks to unify three of the four fundamental forces: electromagnetism, the strong force, and the weak force. The Higgs boson may also help to explain why the remaining force, gravitation, is so weak compared to the other three forces.
Particle Physics Defined
[reprinted from Wikipedia]
Particle physics is a branch of physics that studies the elementary constituents of matter and radiation, and the interactions between them. It is also called "high energy physics", because many elementary particles do not occur under normal circumstances in nature, but can be created and detected during energetic collisions of other particles, as is done in particle accelerators.
Modern particle physics research is focused on subatomic particles, which have less structure than atoms. These include atomic constituents such as electrons, protons, and neutrons (protons and neutrons are actually composite particles, made up of quarks), particles produced by radiative and scattering processes, such as photons, neutrinos, and muons, as well as a wide range of exotic particles.
Strictly speaking, the term particle is a misnomer because the dynamics of particle physics are governed by quantum mechanics. As such, they exhibit wave-particle duality, displaying particle-like behavior under certain experimental conditions and wave-like behavior in others. Following the convention of particle physicists, we will use "elementary particles" to refer to objects such as electrons and photons, with the understanding that these "particles" display wave-like properties as well.
All the particles and their interactions observed to date can almost be described entirely by a quantum field theory called the Standard Model. The Standard Model has 40 species of elementary particles (24 fermions, 12 vector bosons, and 4 scalars), which can combine to form composite particles, accounting for the hundreds of other species of particles discovered since the 1960s. The Standard Model has been found to agree with almost all the experimental tests conducted to date. However, most particle physicists believe that it is an incomplete description of Nature, and that a more fundamental theory awaits discovery. In recent years, measurements of neutrino mass have provided the first experimental deviations from the Standard Model.
Magazine and Online Resources
In my quest to find answers to these questions I have found the following resources extremely useful:
- Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia, for a wide range of general and specific scientific inquiries (www.wikipedia.org)
- Scientific American Magazine, as above plus the latest research reports (www.sciam.com)
- Sky and Telescope Magazine, for physical cosmology and particle physics related research results (www.skyandtelescope.com)