Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Always the opposite: Anti-matter

The last time, I made a brief remark about anti-particles. It is about time to illustrate this rather obscure notion.

What is meant, when we talk about anti-particles? Well, just from the experimental point of view, it is found that for every particle there exists another particle, which has (within experimental certainty) exactly the same mass. It has also the same properties when it comes to the way it spins, the so-called spin. This spin is also something I will explain sometimes else, what this mysterious property is.

However, considering everything else, it is exactly the opposite: If the particle has a negative electric charge, the anti-particle has a positive electric charge. If the particle has color red, the anti-particle has an opposite charge, which is called for the lack of a better name anti-red. And so on. The only exception to this rule are those particles which have, except for mass and spin, no other properties. An example is the photon, which is completely uncharged. In this case, the particle is its own anti-particle.

Now, these are rather surprising objects, but we have very good experimental proof that they exist. In fact, we know anti-matter so well that some experiments, like the old LEP at CERN, use matter and anti-matter routinely as a starting point: At LEP electrons and their anti-particles, the positrons, have been collided.

Matter and anti-matter show a very spectacular effect: Because one plus minus one is zero, it is possible for matter and anti-matter to annihilate each other when they are colliding into something else. For example photons. Or other particles. That happens very easily. Hence you may ask, why we do not annihilate whenever we touch something. The answer is surprisingly simple: Because everything around us is made from matter. If we want to use anti-matter or study it, we have to create it artificially. That is not simple, and we can only create very tiny amounts efficiently. Large amounts become rapidly very expensive, mostly because it is not simple to keep it away from matter, so that is not annihilating with it.

That seems a simple enough answer, but the real question baffling physicist is: Why is this so? If they are so equal, why do we not have the same amount of both (and thus vanish in a big photon cloud)? That is another of the questions we do not yet have a real answer to. Irritatingly, the problem is actually not that we do not know how this can be realized. In fact, in the standard model of particle physics, there is a very, very slight preference for matter over antimatter when it comes to the weak force. This implies that though matter and anti-matter are essentially equal, the forces make a difference between them. However, this effect is by far too small to explain why there is so a fantastically little amount of antimatter around us.

Ok, so you might say: Let us forget for the moment about the experimental evidence, and ask, do we really need anti-mater. Could this simple explanation just be a misinterpretation of the experiments, and what we think is anti-matter is really something else? Well, if this should be the case, we would have to rethink our complete view of how the standard model is described theoretically as well. Indeed, the mathematical structure of the standard model requires the existence of an anti-particle for each particle to work properly. If we would remove the anti-particles from the theory, the consequence would be dramatic. It would even be possible to obtain effects without cause or causes without having effects. This is not what we observe, but what we observe is described by the standard model with particles and anti-particles. Thus we take the experimental results as evidence for anti-particles, and everything fits together when we calculate something.

Of course, this means that we essentially double the number of particles. Up to exceptions like the photon, all particles are now accompanied by their anti-particles. And to every charge comes an anti-charge. However, this also provides new options for new phenomena. The last time last time, this gave us the option of a condensate of quarks and anti-quarks. Also, their are bound states of quarks and anti-quarks, the so-called mesons. The most famous and lightest of them are the so-called pions, of which there are three: One is uncharged, and there is one positively charged and one negatively charged. Th neutral one is again its own anti-particle. The reason is that it is made up out of a quark and the corresponding anti-quark. Thus replacing constituent particle by constituent anti-particle gives again the same bound state. The charged ones are each others anti-particle, because they contain an up and an anti-down quark and an anti-up and a down quark, respectively. Exchange particles by anti-particles yields an exchange of both bound states. So, one can have a lot of fun with building things out of particles and anti-particles.

You can also take a hydrogen atom, and exchanges its nucleus, a proton, by the anti-particle of the electron, a positron. Because the positron has the same electric charge as the proton, you get even something looking very much like an atom. This is called positronium, known for a very long time. Recently, it has also been possible to create true anti-atoms, made from an anti-nucleus and positrons. These are very important to test, whether we really have understood everything about anti-mater. If we have, they should behave in the same way as ordinary atoms. And whether this is the case the experimentalists right now try to find out.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Mass from the strong force

Quite some time ago, I have discussed the Higgs effect, and how it gives the matter particles in the standard model their mass. However, if we look around us, it turns out that most mass we see is actually not due to the Higgs effect.

If we knock on a table, or look at us, then most of this is made up out of atoms. As you might remember, atoms are made up out of nuclei and electrons. The electrons actually get their mass from the Higgs, so that is alright. But they make up less than 0.05% of the mass of the atoms. Thus, one can forget about them for this purpose. Then there are the nuclei. They are made up out of protons and neutrons. These in turn consist out of quarks. But the quarks are rather light, and make up not more than one percent of the mass of the protons and neutrons, and thus of the nuclei. So where does all the remaining mass comes from?

Well, this comes this time from the strong nuclear force, QCD, which has been presented here and here. I have already indicated there that it is a pretty strong force. It is this strength which, indirectly, creates all the mass we are yet missing.

How it works is actually quite complicated in detail, but when being a bit fuzzy about the details, it can be illustrated quite nicely. Looking through such fuzzy glasses, it actually looks like a repetition of the Higgs effect. Remember, the Higgs effect worked by letting the Higgs particles condense. The interaction with this condensate slows particle down, and therefore they behave as having a mass.

Now, how does this proceed in the case of the strong force? The first observation is that the strong force is attractive between quarks, i.e. quarks are attracted to each other. As a consequence, the quarks can form all these nice things like protons. However the force is also attractive between the quarks and their so-called anti-particles. What an anti-particle is I will discuss next time. This time, it is just sufficient to say that it behaves like a quark, but has opposite charges and the same mass.

The strong force now pulls also the quarks and the antiquarks together. The combination of two such particles is then neutral, as all the charges are opposite. It behaves therefore very similar to a Higgs particle. In very much the same way, but this time because of gluons rather than due to the Higgs interacting with itself, this creates also a condensate. That is just like for the Higgs particles. Thus, the universe is filled with quarks and anti-quarks, bound together, and condensed by the strong force. The strong interaction of quarks with this condensate, and the corresponding slowing down, is what provides the remainder mass for the protons and neutrons, and thus for the nuclei. Again, because all the charges cancel, we do not see this condensate, as photons due not directly interact with it.

Putting in numbers, the contribution of the strong force to the mass of the nuclei is much larger than the one due to the Higgs effect. However, the calculation of this was rather challenging. Hence, most of the mass stored in the atoms in the universe is due to the strong force.

It is also said that the strong force provides all the luminous mass in the universe. Here, luminous means actually not only all stars which emit light by themselves, but also everything which reflects light, like planets, interstellar gas clouds, and asteroids. Actually, the latter also emit a kind of light by themselves, but our eyes are not sensitive for the wave-lengths they emit, and therefore we do not see it. The distinction is necessary, because we have indirect evidence that there is also more than just this type of mass in the universe. In fact, we expect that there is about five times more non-luminous, or dark, matter in the universe, than luminous matter. What the origin of mass is in this case is not known.

There is another thing you may wonder about. The quarks have all very different masses due to the Higgs effect. Is the contribution due to the strong interaction also very different for the different quarks? The answer to this is actually no, the contribution from the strong force is about the same for all quarks. Thus, it makes up about 99% of the mass of the light quarks, but less than half a percent for the heaviest one. Thus, while the Higgs makes a difference between the different quark (and lepton) species, the strong force does not. Why this is the case is also yet unknown, and one of the bigger mysteries. Since the different quarks and leptons are also called different flavors of quarks and leptons, it is said that the strong force is flavor-blind, it makes no difference between different flavors. On the other hand, the Higgs makes a different between different flavors.

Finally, it should be noted that the generation of mass can be traced back to a symmetry, though I will not detail this now. This is the so-called chiral symmetry. A thing is called chiral, if it makes a difference between left and right. The associated symmetry in the standard model is a local symmetry. The Higgs effect breaks, loosely spoken, this symmetry to a global one. The strong force then breaks this global symmetry. It is possible, but mathematically involved, to show that these breakings correspond to the existence of mass. Hence, both the Higgs effect and the strong force produce mass. But the above explanations are somewhat more illuminating, I think, though mathematically both views are essentially equivalent. Thus, it is said that mass is created by chiral symmetry breaking, a notion I will right now not dwell on anymore.