Friday, January 29, 2010

The forces of nature III - The strong force (Part II)

As has been told, the hadrons are made up out of quarks. But there is something peculiar about this. When one looks at the constituents of, say, an atom - the nuclei and the electrons - then one can observe all of these also as individual particles. However, this is not applying to quarks. It has not been possible to isolate a quark experimentally. The only thing which can be seen are the hadrons.

When analyzing the structure of the hadrons in search for the reason, it turns out that one can assign to a quark a new charge, the so-called color charge. The name is just fancy and the charge has nothing to do with color. This color charge comes in six types. There are three 'positive' charges, called red, green, and blue (some people occasionally exchange one of the names for yellow), thus carrying the metaphor further. They are like the positive electric charge. Then there are three 'negative' charges, anti-red, anti-green, and anti-blue. They are like negative electric charge. As for electric charges, a negative and a positive color (say anti-green and green) neutralize each other. The amazing difference compared to electric charges is that also three different colors of either type neutralize each other. For example, a red, a green, and a blue quark together are neutral with respect to the color charge.

It is then found that all hadrons are always color-neutral. The mesons are made from one quark with color and one with anti-color, and the baryons are made from three quarks, each carrying one of the colors. In fact, the ones we observe around us are all made of three quarks carrying color. Those which carry anti-color are actually anti-matter, which will be discussed later.

Now, this gives an idea why quarks and hadrons are different. But it does not explain why quarks are not observed. This is now du to the force acting between two color charges. In contrast to all other forces, this force is not getting weaker with distance, but stronger instead. And it gets so quickly stronger that it is not possible to tear a hadron apart into quarks. At least that is what it looks like at the surface. The truth is somewhat more subtle, and not fully understood, and part of my research. Therefore, I will come back to this question many times in the future.

Irrespective of this, the force between colored objects is mediated by gluons. In contrast to photons gluons carry themselves color charges, though they are of a different type than those of quarks, and there are eight different ones, not usually given a name. As a consequence, the enormous strength of the force also binds gluons, and they cannot be observed as freely roaming particles either. In fact, at least in principle it is possible that gluons alone form bound states, much like hadrons. These are called glueballs, but are up to now only hypothetical constructs which have not been observed in nature, though some observations may hint at them. It is an ongoing experimental endeavor to find them.

The justified question is, if the force is so strong, why do we know about quarks and gluons? And why can it still bind the nucleons to nuclei if the nucleons are color-neutral?

Well, the force is not strong at all distances. Indeed, it grows quickly with distance, but on the other hand it diminishes as quickly with shorter and shorter distances. To the best of our knowledge it even ceases completely if one would be able to reduce the distance to zero. That is called asymptotic freedom. Therefore, if one can send a probe close to a quark, then one can identify its existence. For this purpose it helps very much that a quark is not only carrying color charge, but also electric charge. Therefore, it can be registered more easily by hitting it with a photon or an electron. That is somewhat indirect, but that is one of the main sources of experimental information on the quarks. The gluons are even more complicated, since they only carry color charge. Therefore, our evidence for them is rather indirect.

This is then also how nucleons feel each other by the strong force. When they come close to each other, they start to see each others quarks, which then can interact by the strong force. This is a comparatively weak effect, since it is, vastly simplifying spoken, just a bit of penetration what makes them feel each other. Nonetheless, this remainder of the force is so much stronger than the electric force that it makes the nuclei about 100000-times smaller than an atom. This should give an idea of how very strong this force must be that even such a small glimpse of it has such far-reaching consequences.

It is this strong force to which I will return repeatedly, as it is and has been for a long time my major focus of research. The one reason is that our understanding of this force is not very good is because many approaches just have to give up when faced with such an enormous strong force. Only at very short distances we have reliable control over it. Hence, the theory of this force, which is called quantum chromo dynamics (for the Greek word chromos for color and short QCD), is very hard to tackle. There is a simpler version of it, which only deals with the gluons and neglects the quarks (and is therefore not a picture of nature). It is called Yang-Mills theory. Because it contains already many essential features of QCD, it often, and also for me, serves as a prototype theory for the strong force.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The forces of nature III - The strong force (Part I)

If one descends to smaller and smaller scales one always finds that larger things are built up from smaller things. When one looks to a human, she is made from cells. Each cell in turn is built from molecules, small and large.

Each of the molecules, in turn, is made from atoms. These atoms are rather small, like 0,0000000001 m each. There is one thing special about atoms which has not been encountered with molecules and cells: There is only a finite number of different ones of them observed in nature, while there appears to be an infinite number of different molecules and cells. In fact, atoms can be organized into a scheme (ok, this also applies to molecules and to some extent to cells also), the so-called periodic system of atoms. There are roughly hundred of them to be found in nature, and we managed to make a number artificially of them more over the years. Each of the atoms differs by its chemical properties.

So, it seems that atoms can be built, much like molecules. However, it is found that there are some atoms which behave in every respect essentially identical when it comes to chemistry, but they have a different mass. Both facts (and a number of others) suggest that atoms themselves are built from other things.

Indeed, it is found that atoms are made from two parts: Electrons and nuclei. The electrons orbit the nuclei, which is about 100000-times smaller than the atom (the electrons are even smaller as discussed previously). The are different electromagnetically charge with respect to each other, and there is always exactly one nuclei, but so many electrons that the total electric charge is zero.

It turns out that the charge is responsible for the chemistry, so the charge of the nuclei characterizes the atom. The mass of the atom is made essentially by the nuclei, which is about 2000 times heavier than the electrons. So different mass nuclei provide the same chemistry. Why?

Well, it turns out that the nuclei are composed from different objects themselves, the nucleons. That is the reason why new ones can be made and there are chemical identical ones with different mass. They nucleons come in two types, the neutrons and the protons. The latter carry the charge, making the atom chemical active, while the neutrons are chemically essentially inactive. On the other hand both have essentially the same mass. So chemically different atoms differ by their number of protons, but chemically identical atoms having different mass differ by the number of neutrons.

It is found that the nucleons have about the same size as the nuclei, so they are fairly densely packed inside the nuclei (in a typical atom there are a few dozen nucleons). What is keeping them together? It cannot be gravity alone, as it is too weak. If gravity alone should provide this, the nuclei would be much, much larger. It cannot be electromagnetism, as the neutron has no charge. So it must be something different. Indeed it is a new force, the so-called strong (or, since it was discovered in the context of the nuclei, nuclear) force. This force is binding the nucleons together to form the nuclei, and thus shapes the very word we live in as much as electromagnetism does.

The force between the nucleons is created by the exchange of mesons. These particles are usually not observable in nature as they decay too fast by the weak interactions to be discussed later. They can be observed in cosmic rays. The most important meson is the pion, having about an eighth of the mass of the nucleon. So, in contrast to the photon, it is massive. It also can carry charge, there is a positive one, a negative one, and a neutral one. There are also other mesons, the kaon, the rho, and the omega, playing a role in the nuclear force. In fact, as it was started to investigate this, more and more of these mesons have been found. Also, it was found that the nucleons are not the only of their kind. There are other, quite similar objects, like the delta or the cascade particles. Those nucleon-like particles have been termed the baryons, in distinction to the mesons. Both together are called hadrons, to distinguish them from the leptons. These mesons and baryons can again be put into a kind of periodic table, and we can produce new ones of them.

As the experience with atoms already told, this indicates that the baryons and mesons are themselves composites from other particles. Indeed, they are built up from quarks. Mesons consists of two, baryons of three quarks. If there are objects which are constructed from four or five or more quarks is not really known. If so, they are rathe short-lived and decay into mesons and baryons. During the recent years, conflicting experimental results made this a hot debate, and the judge is still out. These objects would be called tetraquarks (four quarks) or pentaquarks (five quarks).

In any case, there has to be a force holding the quarks together inside mesons and baryons. It turns out that this is again the strong force, but in another disguise.