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elementary particles

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

elementary particles

elementary particles, the most basic physical constituents of the universe.

Basic Constituents of Matter

Molecules are built up from the atom, which is the basic unit of any chemical element. The atom in turn is made from the proton, neutron, and electron. It turns out that protons and neutrons are made of varieties of a still smaller particle called the quark. At this time it appears that the two basic constituents of matter are the lepton (of which the electron is one type) and quark; there are believed to be six types of each. Each type of lepton and quark also has a corresponding antiparticle: a particle that has the same mass but opposite electrical charge and magnetic moment. An isolated quark has never been found—quarks appear to almost always be found in pairs or triplets with other quarks and antiquarks (the resulting particles being classed as hadrons, more than 200 of which have been identified). Two theoretically predicted five-quark particles, called pentaquarks, have been produced in the laboratory. Four- and six-quark particles are also predicted but have not been found.

The most familiar lepton is the electron; the other five leptons are the muon, the tau particle, and the three types of neutrino associated with each: the electron neutrino, the muon neutrino, and the tau neutrino. The six quarks have been whimsically named up, down, charm, strange, top (or truth), and bottom (or beauty); the top quark, which has a mass greater than an entire atom of gold, is about 35 times heavier than the next biggest quark and may be the heaviest particle nature has ever created. The quarks found in ordinary matter are the up and down quarks, from which protons and neutrons are made. A proton, for instance, consists of two up quarks and a down quark, and a neutron consists of two down quarks and an up quark. The pentaquark consists of two up quarks, two down quarks, and the strange antiquark. (Quarks have fractional charges of one third or two thirds of the basic charge of the electron or proton.)

Carriers of the Basic Forces

The elementary particles of matter interact with one another through four distinct types of force: gravitation, electromagnetism, and the forces from strong interactions and weak interactions. A given particle experiences certain of these forces, while it may be immune to others. The gravitational force is experienced by all particles. The electromagnetic force is experienced only by charged particles, such as the electron and muon. The strong nuclear force is responsible for the structure of the nucleus, and only particles made up of quarks participate in the strong nuclear interaction or force. Other particles, including the electron, muon, and the three neutrinos, do not participate in the strong nuclear interactions but only in the weak nuclear interactions associated with particle decay.

Each force is carried by an elementary particle. The electromagnetic force, for instance, is mediated by the photon, the basic quantum of electromagnetic radiation. The strong force is mediated by the gluon, the weak force by the W and Z particles, and gravity is thought to be mediated by the graviton. Quantum field theory applied to the understanding of the electromagnetic force is called quantum electrodynamics, and applied to the understanding of strong interactions is called quantum chromodynamics. In 1979 Sheldon Glashow, Steven Weinberg, and Abdus Salam were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in demonstrating that the electromagnetic and weak forces are really manifestations of a single electroweak force. A unified theory that would explain all four forces as manifestations of a single force is being sought.

Standard Model of Particle Physics

The behavior of all known subatomic particles can be described within a single theoretical framework called the Standard Model. This model incorporates the quarks and leptons as well as their interactions through the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces. Only gravity remains outside the Standard Model. The force-carrying particles are called gauge bosons, and they differ fundamentally from the quarks and leptons. The fundamental forces appear to behave very differently in ordinary matter, but the Standard Model indicates that they are basically very similar when matter is in a high-energy environment.

Although the Standard Model does a credible job in explaining the interactions among quarks, leptons, and bosons, the theory does not include an important property of elementary particles, their mass. The lightest particle is the electron and the heaviest particle is believed to be the top quark, which weighs at least 200,000 times as much as an electron. In 1964 Scottish physicist Peter W. Higgs of Edinburgh University proposed a mechanism that provided a way to explain how the fundamental particles could have mass. Higgs theorized that the whole of space is permeated by a field, now called the Higgs field, similar in some ways to the electromagnetic field. As particles move through space they travel through this field, and if they interact with it they acquire what appears to be mass. A basic part of quantum theory is wave-particle duality—all fields have particles associated with them. The particle associated with the Higgs field is the Higgs boson or Higgs particle, a particle with no intrinsic spin or electrical charge. Although it is called a boson, it does not mediate force as do the other bosons (see below). Finding it is the key to discovering whether the Higgs field exists, whether Higgs's hypothesis for the origin of mass is indeed correct, and whether the Standard Model will survive. Data from Fermilab and CERN experiments suggested that the Higgs particle exists, and in 2012 CERN scientists announced the discovery of a new elementary particle consistent with a Higgs boson; CERN confirmed the discovery in 2013. Some theorists have proposed, as a result of experiments at Fermilab in which a greater matter-antimatter asymmetry occured than would be expected under the Standard Model, that there might be multiple Higgs bosons with different charges.

Classification of Elementary Particles

Two types of statistics are used to describe elementary particles, and the particles are classified on the basis of which statistics they obey. Fermi-Dirac statistics apply to those particles restricted by the Pauli exclusion principle; particles obeying the Fermi-Dirac statistics are known as fermions. Leptons and quarks are fermions. Two fermions are not allowed to occupy the same quantum state. Bose-Einstein statistics apply to all particles not covered by the exclusion principle, and such particles are known as bosons. The number of bosons in a given quantum state is not restricted. In general, fermions compose nuclear and atomic structure, while bosons act to transmit forces between fermions; the photon, gluon, and the W and Z particles are bosons.

Basic categories of particles have also been distinguished according to other particle behavior. The strongly interacting particles were classified as either mesons or baryons; it is now known that mesons consist of quark-antiquark pairs and that baryons consist of quark triplets. The meson class members are more massive than the leptons but generally less massive than the proton and neutron, although some mesons are heavier than these particles. The lightest members of the baryon class are the proton and neutron, and the heavier members are known as hyperons. In the meson and baryon classes are included a number of particles that cannot be detected directly because their lifetimes are so short that they leave no tracks in a cloud chamber or bubble chamber. These particles are known as resonances, or resonance states, because of an analogy between their manner of creation and the resonance of an electrical circuit.

See table entitled Elementary Particles.

Conservation Laws and Symmetry

Some conservation laws apply both to elementary particles and to microscopic objects, such as the laws governing the conservation of mass-energy, linear momentum, angular momentum, and charge. Other conservation laws have meaning only on the level of particle physics, including the three conservation laws for leptons, which govern members of the electron, muon, and tau families respectively, and the law governing members of the baryon class.

New quantities have been invented to explain certain aspects of particle behavior. For example, the relatively slow decay of kaons, lambda hyperons, and some other particles led physicists to the conclusion that some conservation law prevented these particles from decaying rapidly through the strong interaction; instead they decayed through the weak interaction. This new quantity was named "strangeness" and is conserved in both strong and electromagnetic interactions, but not in weak interactions. Thus, the decay of a "strange" particle into nonstrange particles, e.g., the lambda baryon into a proton and pion, can proceed only by the slow weak interaction and not by the strong interaction.

Another quantity explaining particle behavior is related to the fact that many particles occur in groups, called multiplets, in which the particles are of almost the same mass but differ in charge. The proton and neutron form such a multiplet. The new quantity describes mathematically the effect of changing a proton into a neutron, or vice versa, and was given the name isotopic spin. This name was chosen because the total number of protons and neutrons in a nucleus determines what isotope the atom represents and because the mathematics describing this quantity are identical to those used to describe ordinary spin (the intrinsic angular momentum of elementary particles). Isotopic spin actually has nothing to do with spin, but is represented by a vector that can have various orientations in an imaginary space known as isotopic spin space. Isotopic spin is conserved only in the strong interactions.

Closely related to conservation laws are three symmetry principles that apply to changing the total circumstances of an event rather than changing a particular quantity. The three symmetry operations associated with these principles are: charge conjugation (C), which is equivalent to exchanging particles and antiparticles; parity (P), which is a kind of mirror-image symmetry involving the exchange of left and right; and time-reversal (T), which reverses the order in which events occur. According to the symmetry principles (or invariance principles), performing one of these symmetry operations on a possible particle reaction should result in a second reaction that is also possible. However, it was found in 1956 that parity is not conserved in the weak interactions, i.e., there are some possible particle decays whose mirror-image counterparts do not occur. Although not conserved individually, the combination of all three operations performed successively is conserved; this law is known as the CPT theorem.

The Discovery of Elementary Particles

The first subatomic particle to be discovered was the electron, identified in 1897 by J. J. Thomson. After the nucleus of the atom was discovered in 1911 by Ernest Rutherford, the nucleus of ordinary hydrogen was recognized to be a single proton. In 1932 the neutron was discovered. An atom was seen to consist of a central nucleus—containing protons and, except for ordinary hydrogen, neutrons—surrounded by orbiting electrons. However, other elementary particles not found in ordinary atoms immediately began to appear.

In 1928 the relativistic quantum theory of P. A. M. Dirac hypothesized the existence of a positively charged electron, or positron, which is the antiparticle of the electron; it was first detected in 1932. Difficulties in explaining beta decay (see radioactivity) led to the prediction of the neutrino in 1930, and by 1934 the existence of the neutrino was firmly established in theory (although it was not actually detected until 1956). Another particle was also added to the list: the photon, which had been first suggested by Einstein in 1905 as part of his quantum theory of the photoelectric effect.

The next particles discovered were related to attempts to explain the strong interactions, or strong nuclear force, binding nucleons (protons and neutrons) together in an atomic nucleus. In 1935 Hideki Yukawa suggested that a meson (a charged particle with a mass intermediate between those of the electron and the proton) might be exchanged between nucleons. The meson emitted by one nucleon would be absorbed by another nucleon; this would produce a strong force between the nucleons, analogous to the force produced by the exchange of photons between charged particles interacting through the electromagnetic force. (It is now known, of course, that the strong force is mediated by the gluon.) The following year a particle of approximately the required mass (about 200 times that of the electron) was discovered and named the mu meson, or muon. However, its behavior did not conform to that of the theoretical particle. In 1947 the particle predicted by Yukawa was finally discovered and named the pi meson, or pion.

Both the muon and the pion were first observed in cosmic rays. Further studies of cosmic rays turned up more particles. By the 1950s these elementary particles were also being observed in the laboratory as a result of particle collisions produced by a particle accelerator.

One of the current frontiers in the study of elementary particles concerns the interface between that discipline and cosmology. The known quarks and leptons, for instance, are typically grouped in three families (where each family contains two quarks and two leptons); investigators have wondered whether additional families of elementary particles might be found. Recent work in cosmology pertaining to the evolution of the universe has suggested that there could be no more families than four, and the cosmological theory has been substantiated by experimental work at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (now SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory) and at CERN, which indicates that there are no families of elementary particles other than the three that are known today.


See S. Glashow, Interactions: A Journey through the Mind of a Particle Physicist and the Matter of This World (1988); L. M. Lederman and D. N. Schramm, From Quarks to the Cosmos (1989).

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