Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why colors cannot be seen

Before I can continue to my next research topic, I have to introduce yet another fascinating feature of the strong interactions, QCD. As you may remember, QCD had three charges: Red, green, and blue. There was also anti-matter with the anti-charges anti-red, anti-green, and anti-blue. To have total charge zero, one needed either a charge and an anti-charge, or one of each of the charges (or anti-charges). Total charge zero is then often also called white, just to keep with the analogy.

Now comes the fascinating fact: However hard we tried, and we did try very hard, we were never able to find something with either of the charges alone. Whenever we saw something with, say, red charge, we could be certain that enough other charges have been very close by to make the total charge within a very tiny part of space-time again zero. And tiny means here much less than the size of a proton! That is totally different from electromagnetism. There we had the electric charge and the anti-charge. We can separate such electric charges easily. Every time you move with plastic shoes over carpet and then touch something made from metal, you do so, albeit rather. unpleasantly. In fact, the screen where you read this blog entry is based on this: Without being able to separate the electric charges to very large distances (at least from the perspective of an electron), it would not work. Even the fact that you can see at all is based on this separation. In the nerves of your eyes and your brain, electric charges are separated and joined together when you see something

So why is QCD different? That is indeed a very, very good question. In fact, it is not even simple to find a mathematical way to state what is going on. The general phenomena: "We can not pull the charges apart" is commonly referred to as confinement. The charges are what is confined, and somehow the strong force confines it. That is already a bit strange. The force confines the things on which it itself acts. Not necessarily a simple thing to ponder. It seems to be somehow self-related in a bizarre way.

But it is really not that strange. Think of an atom. It is held together by the electromagnetic force between the electron(s) and the atomic nucleus. The total atom is electrically neutral. But because electromagnetism is not so strong, we can pull the components apart from each other, if we just invest enough force. The reason we can do this is that the force pulling electrons and the nucleus together becomes weaker the farther apart we move the electrons and the nucleus.

The strong force is now, precisely, stronger. In fact, the force between things with color charge is not diminishing with distance. It stays constant. Thus, we cannot really tear anything apart. As soon, as we stop forcing it, it gets back together immediately. So no way we get it apart. That seems to be odd. Indeed, when you look at the equations describing QCD, you will see no trace of this behavior. Only when you solve them, this becomes different. The solutions describing the actual dynamics of QCD show this. But solving them is very hard. Thus, back when QCD was developed, people could not solve them. Hence, this behavior in experiments seemed to appear out of the blue, and made it hard for many people to believe in QCD. And actually, even today we can only solve the equations of QCD approximately. But good enough that we can convince ourselves that this type of behavior is indeed an integral part of QCD. Confinement is there.

As so very often, I am right now dropping quite a number of subtleties. One of them is that I did not say anything about gluons. For them, very similar things apply as for quarks. The only thing is that they have different colors than the quarks, and you have to juggle around with now eight different ones rather than three. A bit more messy. But that is essentially all.

More severe is that white things actually can break apart. That may seem to look like a contradiction to what I said above. However, it is not. The subtlety with this is that they break into more white things, and not into their colorful constituents. For example, you can try to break a proton apart. A proton consists out of three quarks, one of each color. If you try to break it apart, at some point you will end up with a proton and a meson. A meson is something which consist of one quark with a color and an anti-quark with the corresponding anti-color. You may be irritated where I have the mass from. That is something different, and has nothing to do with confinement, and I will come back to this later. For now, just accept that this can happen. Anyway, you just do not get that proton apart, you just get more particles.

You see that this confinement has quite striking consequences. It is still something we have neither fully understood, nor do we have yet fully appreciated what it means. It is and remains something to understand for us. We have made great progress in this, but we are still lacking some basic notions of what is actually really going on. In fact, sometimes there are heated debates about what is actually a part of confinement, and what is something else, because we do not yet have a full grasp of what it means.

Irrespective of that, we have this phenomenon. We observed it experimentally. And we are able to get from the equations describing QCD its presence, even if we do not yet fully understand what it means and how it works. And it is this confinement what plays an important role in the next research topic of mine.


  1. Excuses, excuses...:) You cannot separate quarks, you cannot separate colors.

    Why don't you just think beyond QCD and read my blog


    Criticism is always welcome. I hope you share the same view.



    1. As always, new thoughts are welcome. However, every theory needs to be put to a test.

      For QCD, this has been done very often. With all these features, we have now been able to calculate the masses of many particles observed in experiments quite convincingly at the percent level. Thus, a theory to replace QCD should be able to do this as well, and should make some experimentally testable predictions in which it differs from QCD, so that experiment can decide.

      Which tests can you offer, at which experiments should look?