Particle physics (or high energy physics) studies the nature of the particles that constitute matter (particles with mass) and radiation (massless particles). Although the word "particle" can refer to various types of very small objects (e.g., protons, gas particles, or even household dust), "particle physics" usually investigates the irreducibly smallest detectable particles and the irreducibly fundamental force fields necessary to explain them.
- 33.0: Prelude to Particle Physics
- In its study, we have found a relatively small number of atoms with systematic properties that explained a tremendous range of phenomena. Nuclear physics is concerned with the nuclei of atoms and their substructures. Here, a smaller number of components—the proton and neutron—make up all nuclei. Exploring the systematic behavior of their interactions has revealed even more about matter, forces, and energy.
- 33.1: The Yukawa Particle and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle Revisited
- Particle physics as we know it today began with the ideas of Hideki Yukawa in 1935. Yukawa was interested in the strong nuclear force in particular and found an ingenious way to explain its short range. His idea is a blend of particles, forces, relativity, and quantum mechanics that is applicable to all forces. Yukawa proposed that force is transmitted by the exchange of particles (called carrier particles). The field consists of these carrier particles.
- 33.2: The Four Basic Forces
- There are only four distinct basic forces in all of nature. This is a remarkably small number considering the myriad phenomena they explain. Particle physics is intimately tied to these four forces. Certain fundamental particles, called carrier particles, carry these forces, and all particles can be classified according to which of the four forces they feel.
- 33.3: Accelerators Create Matter from Energy
- The fundamental process in creating previously unknown particles is to accelerate known particles, such as protons or electrons, and direct a beam of them toward a target. I the energy of the incoming particles is large enough, new matter is sometimes created in the collision. Limitations are placed on what can occur by known conservation laws, such as conservation of mass-energy, momentum, and charge. Even more interesting are the unknown limitations provided by nature.
- 33.4: Particles, Patterns, and Conservation Laws
- After World War II, accelerators energetic enough to create these particles were built. Not only were predicted and known particles created, but many unexpected particles were observed. Initially called elementary particles, their numbers proliferated to dozens and then hundreds, and the term “particle zoo” became the physicist’s lament at the lack of simplicity. But patterns were observed in the particle zoo that led to simplifying ideas such as quarks, as we shall soon see.
- 33.5: Quarks - Is That All There Is?
- Quarks have been mentioned at various points in this text as fundamental building blocks and members of the exclusive club of truly elementary particles. Note that an elementary or fundamental particle has no substructure (it is not made of other particles) and has no finite size other than its wavelength. This does not mean that fundamental particles are stable—some decay, while others do not. Keep in mind that all leptons seem to be fundamental, whereas no hadrons are fundamental.
- 33.6: GUTs - The Unification of Forces
- The search for a correct theory linking the four fundamental forces, called the Grand Unified Theory (GUT), is explored in this section in the realm of particle physics. Frontiers of Physics expands the story in making a connection with cosmology, on the opposite end of the distance scale.
Thumbnail: In this Feynman diagram, an electron and apositron annihilate, producing a photon(represented by the blue sine wave) that becomes aquark–antiquark pair, after which the antiquark radiates a gluon (represented by the green helix). (CC-SA-BY 2.5; Joel Holdsworth).
Contributors and Attributions
Paul Peter Urone (Professor Emeritus at California State University, Sacramento) and Roger Hinrichs (State University of New York, College at Oswego) with Contributing Authors: Kim Dirks (University of Auckland) and Manjula Sharma (University of Sydney). This work is licensed by OpenStax University Physics under a Creative Commons Attribution License (by 4.0).