Does Particle Physics Have A Future On Earth?
“Will it be successful? Regardless of what we find, that answer is unequivocally yes. In experimental physics, success does not equate to finding something, as some might erroneously believe. Instead, success means knowing something, post-experiment, that you did not know before you did the experiment. To push beyond the presently known frontiers, we’d ideally want both a lepton and a proton collider, at the highest energies and collision rates we can achieve.
There is no doubt that new technologies and spinoffs will come from whichever collider or colliders come next, but that’s not why we do it. We are after the deepest secrets of nature, the ones that will remain elusive even after the Large Hadron Collider finishes. We have the technical capabilities, the personnel, and the expertise to build it right at our fingertips. All we need is the political and financial will, as a civilization, to seek the ultimate truths about nature.”
With the discovery of the Higgs boson and nothing else at the LHC, many physicists are legitimately entertaining what’s been called the “nightmare scenario,” where no new particles exist beyond the Standard Model that can be discovered by terrestrial colliders. But it isn’t a foregone conclusion that there aren’t such particles, and there are two generic types of plan for how we might find any new particles that do exist beyond the LHC’s reach. If the experimental particle physics community comes together to develop a single, coherent proposal for their future, we could probe the frontiers of nature as never before.
Does particle physics have a future on Earth? It should, and here’s what I would recommend they choose if they have the political and financial will to do so.
Ask Ethan: Where Does A Proton’s Mass Come From?
“What’s happening inside protons? Why does [its] mass so greatly exceed the combined masses of its constituent quarks and gluons?”
The whole is equal to the sum of its parts. That’s one of the first rules you learn, and it’s true about almost everything in the Universe. If you were to break a human being down into our constituent components, the cells in our body would add up to our entire selves. Same for the molecules in our cells and the atoms in our molecules.
But when you get down to atomic nuclei, something funny happens: the individual protons and neutrons are about 1% heavier than the atoms as a whole. That’s a clue as to what’s happening, but it cannot prepare us for the most mind-boggling fact: the quarks that make up the proton are only 0.2% of the proton’s actual mass!
Why is this? And, if it’s not from the quarks that make it up, where does the proton’s mass come from? We know, both theoretically and experimentally, and now you can know, too!
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!
The Surprising Reason Why Neutron Stars Don’t All Collapse To Form Black Holes
“The measurements of the enormous pressure inside the proton, as well as the distribution of that pressure, show us what’s responsible for preventing the collapse of neutron stars. It’s the internal pressure inside each proton and neutron, arising from the strong force, that holds up neutron stars when white dwarfs have long given out. Determining exactly where that mass threshold is just got a great boost. Rather than solely relying on astrophysical observations, the experimental side of nuclear physics may provide the guidepost we need to theoretically understand where the limits of neutron stars actually lie.”
If you take a large, massive collection of matter and compress it down into a small space, it’s going to attempt to form a black hole. The only thing that can stop it is some sort of internal pressure that pushes back. For stars, that’s thermal, radiation pressure. For white dwarfs, that’s the quantum degeneracy pressure from the electrons. And for neutron stars, there’s quantum degeneracy pressure between the neutrons (or quarks) themselves. Only, if that last case were the only factor at play, neutron stars wouldn’t be able to get more massive than white dwarfs, and there’s strong evidence that they can reach almost twice the Chandrasekhar mass limit of 1.4 solar masses. Instead, there must be a big contribution from the internal pressure each the individual nucleon to resist collapse.
For the first time, we’ve measured that pressure distribution inside the proton, paving the way to understanding why massive neutron stars don’t all form black holes.
Ask Ethan: If Matter Is Made Of Point Particles, Why Does Everything Have A Size?
“Many sources state that quarks are point particles… so one would think that objects composed of them — in this instance, neutrons — would also be points. Is my logic flawed? Or would they be bound to each other in such a way that they would cause the resulting neutron to have angular size?”
When we consider things like molecules, atoms, or even protons and neutrons, they all have finite, measurable sizes. Yet the fundamental particles that they’re made out of, like quarks, electrons, and gluons, are all inherently points, with no physical size to them at all. Why, then, does every composite particle not only have a size, but some of them, like atoms, grow to be relatively huge almost immediately, even with only a few fundamental particles involved? It’s due to three factors that all work together: forces, the quantum properties of the particles themselves, and energy. Since the strong and electromagnetic forces work against each other, quarks and gluons can form finite-sized protons; protons and neutrons assemble into nuclei larger than the protons and neutrons combined would make; electrons, with their low mass and high zero-point energy, orbit around nuclei only at great (relative) distances.
Matter doesn’t need to be made of finite-sized particles to wind up creating the macroscopic Universe we know and love. Find out how on this week’s Ask Ethan!