At Last, Physicists Understand Where Matter’s Mass Comes From
“The way quarks bind into protons is fundamentally different from all the other forces and interactions we know of. Instead of the force getting stronger when objects get closer — like the gravitational, electric or magnetic forces — the attractive force goes down to zero when quarks get arbitrarily close. And instead of the force getting weaker when objects get farther away, the force pulling quarks back together gets stronger the farther away they get.
This property of the strong nuclear force is known as asymptotic freedom, and the particles that mediate this force are known as gluons. Somehow, the energy binding the proton together, the other 99.8% of the proton’s mass, comes from these gluons.”
Matter seems pretty straightforward to understand. Take whatever system you want to understand, break it up into its constituents, and see how they bind together. You’d assume, for good reason, that the whole would equal the sum of its parts. Split apart a cell into its molecules, and the molecules add up to the same mass as the cell. Split up molecules into atoms, or atoms into nuclei and electrons, and the masses remain equal. But go inside an atomic nucleus, to the quarks and gluons, and suddenly you find that over 99% of the mass is missing. The discovery of QCD, our theory of the strong interactions, provided a solution to the puzzle, but for decades, calculating the masses in a predictive way was impossible. Thanks to supercomputer advances, though, and the technique of Lattice QCD, we’re finally beginning to truly understand where the mass of matter comes from.
Come get the scoop, and then tune in to a live-blog of a public lecture at 7 PM ET / 4 PM PT today to get the even deeper story!
Ask Ethan: If Mass Curves Spacetime, How Does It Un-Curve Again?
“We are taught that mass warps spacetime, and the curvature of spacetime around mass explains gravity – so that an object in orbit around Earth, for example, is actually going in a straight line through curved spacetime. Ok, that makes sense, but when mass (like the Earth) moves through spacetime and bends it, why does spacetime not stay bent? What mechanism un-warps that area of spacetime as the mass moves on?”
You’ve very likely heard that according to Einstein, matter tells spacetime how to curve, and that curved spacetime tells matter how to move. This is true, but then why doesn’t spacetime remain curved when a mass that was once there is no longer present? Does something cause space to snap back to its prior, un-bent position? As it turns out, we need to think pretty hard about General Relativity to get this right in the first place at all. It isn’t just the locations and magnitudes of masses that determine how objects move through space, but a series of subtle effects that must all be added together to get it right. When we do, we find out that uncurving this space actually results in gravitational radiation: ripples in space that have been observed and confirmed.
The deciding results are actually decades old, and were indirect evidence for gravitational waves long before LIGO. Come get the answer today!
In A Quantum Universe, Even Mass Is Uncertain
“It’s one of the most remarkable and counterintuitive results of the quantum Universe, that every unstable particle that you make has an inherent uncertainty to the most seemingly fundamental property of all: mass. You can know what the average mass of a typical particle of any particular type, and you can measure its width, which is directly related to its mean lifetime through the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. But every time you create one new particle, there’s no way to know what its actual mass will be; all you can do is calculate the probabilities of having a varieties of masses. In order to know for sure, all you can do is measure what comes out and reconstruct what actually existed. Quantum uncertainty, first seen for position and momentum, can now be convincingly stated to extend all the way to the rest energy of a fundamental particle. In a quantum Universe, even mass itself isn’t set in stone.”
There are a few properties you can say intrinsically belong to a particle: things like mass, spin, electric charge, and certain other quantum numbers. If your particle is completely stable for all eternity, there’s no reason to question any of this. But if a particle you create, even a fundamental one, has an inherent instability and can decay, all of a sudden Heisenberg comes in to mess everything up! Suddenly, the fact that you have an uncertain lifetime means you have that pesky energy-time uncertainty, and the energy of your particle is intrinsically uncertain, too. Because E = mc^2, that means your mass is uncertain, too. And the shorter-lived your particle is, on average, the more uncertain your mass is. This means when you make a top quark, for example, it could have a mass of 165 GeV, 170 GeV, 175 GeV, 180 GeV, or anywhere in between those values. (Including some values outside of that range!)
In a quantum Universe, even mass is uncertain. Here’s the fundamental physics story of how that came to be, both theoretically and experimentally.
The Three Meanings Of E=mc^2, Einstein’s Most Famous Equation
“Even masses at rest have an energy inherent to them. You’ve learned about all types of energies, including mechanical energy, chemical energy, electrical energy, as well as kinetic energy. These are all energies inherent to moving or reacting objects, and these forms of energy can be used to do work, such as run an engine, power a light bulb, or grind grain into flour. But even plain, old, regular mass at rest has energy inherent to it: a tremendous amount of energy. This carries with it a tremendous implication: that gravitation, which works between any two masses in the Universe in Newton’s picture, should also work based off of energy, which is equivalent to mass via E = mc^2.”
When it comes to equations, few can lay claim to being ‘the most famous one’ of all time, but right up there is Einstein’s greatest and simplest: E = mc^2. Yet it doesn’t simply state that mass and energy are equivalent, or that the relationship between them is given by the constant c^2. Sure, it says those things, but there’s also a vital physical meaning behind them. Understanding E = mc^2 has led to a variety of tremendous discoveries and breakthroughs, from nuclear power to the creation of new particles in particle accelerators. It even led directly to discovering that Newtonian gravity was theoretically unsound, ushering in the era of General Relativity, as well as the fact that any theory of gravity needs to include a gravitational redshift/blueshift.
How did it all come about? Find out the three meanings of Einstein’s most famous equation, and what it means for our Universe.
Ask Ethan: Do Black Holes Grow Faster Than They Evaporate?
“Wondering why black holes wouldn’t be growing faster than they can evaporate due to [Hawking] radiation. If particle pairs are erupting everywhere in space, including inside [black hole] event horizons, and not all of them are annihilating one another shortly thereafter, why doesn’t a [black hole] slowly swell due to surviving particles that don’t get annihilated?”
So, you’ve got a black hole in the Universe, and you want to know what happens next. The space around it is curved due to the presence of the central mass, with greater curvature occurring closer to the center. There’s an event horizon, a location from which light cannot escape. And there’s the quantum nature of the Universe, which means that the zero-point-energy of empty space has a positive value: it’s greater than zero. Put them together, and you get some interesting consequences. One of these is Hawking radiation, where radiation is created and moves away from the black hole’s center. It occurs at a specific rate that’s dependent on the black hole’s mass. But another is black hole growth from the mass and energy that falls through the event horizon, causing that black hole to grow. At the present time, realistic black holes are all growing faster than they’re decaying, but that won’t be the case for always.
Eventually, all black holes will decay away. Come find out the story on when evaporation will win out on this week’s Ask Ethan!
Ask Ethan: Why Do Stars Come In Different Sizes?
“Why can suns grow to… many different sizes? That is, ranging from somewhat larger [than] Jupiter up to suns exceeding Jupiter’s orbit?”
“Bigger mass makes a bigger star,” you might be inclined to say. The smallest stars in size should be small because they have the least amount of material in them, while the largest ones of all are the largest because they’ve got the most material to make stars out of. And that’s a tempting explanation, but it doesn’t account for either the smallest stars or the largest ones in the Universe. As it turns out, neutron stars and white dwarfs are almost all larger in mass than our own Sun is, and yet the Sun is hundreds or even many thousands of times larger than they are. The most massive star known is only 30 times the physical size of our Sun, while the largest star of all is nearly 2,000 times our Sun’s size. As it turns out, there’s much, much more at play than mass alone.
Why do stars really come in different sizes, and how do we even know how big a star is at all? Find out on this week’s Ask Ethan!