The continuing search for the basic building blocks of matter is the subject of Particle Physics (also called High Energy Physics).
The idea of fundamental building blocks has evolved from the concept of four elements (earth, air, fire and water) of the Ancient Greeks to the nineteenth century picture of atoms as tiny "billiard balls." The key word here is FUNDAMENTAL - objects which are simple and have no structure - they are not made of anything smaller!
Our current understanding of these fundamental constituents began to fall into place around 100 years ago, when experimenters first discovered that the atom was not fundamental at all, but was itself made of smaller building blocks.
Using particle probes as "microscopes," scientists determined that an atom has a dense center, or NUCLEUS, of positive charge surrounded by a dilute "cloud" of light, negatively-charged electrons. In between the nucleus and electrons, most of the atom is empty space!
As the particle "microscopes" became more and more powerful, scientists found that the nucleus was composed of two types of yet smaller constituents called protons and neutrons, and that even protons and neutrons are made up of smaller particles called quarks. The quarks inside the nucleus come in two varieties, called "up" or u-quark and "down" or d-quark.
As far as we know, quarks and electrons really are fundamental (although experimenters continue to look for evidence to the contrary).
We know that these fundamental building blocks are small, but just how small are they? Using probes that can "see" down to very small distances inside the atom, physicists know that quarks and electrons are smaller than 10-18 (that's 0.000 000 000 000 000 001!) meters across.
Over the past few decades, particle physicists have discovered some 200 subatomic particles, most of which are not fundamental, but are made up of different combinations of the fundamental particles.
In parallel, they have developed a theory called The Standard Model, which describes all of these particles and the interactions between them in terms of a few fundamental particles and forces.
There are two types of particles: those which are matter particles (such as the quarks and electrons we encountered earlier), and those which carry forces.
We will look at the matter particles first.
All the things we see around us in the everyday world are made from the proton, neutron and electron building blocks which constitute atoms. A proton has positive electric charge +1 (of the same magnitude as an electron but with opposite sign). A neutron has no electric charge. Different atoms (chemical elements) correspond to different numbers and groupings of these particles.
Physicists divide the fundamental particles into two classes, QUARKS and LEPTONS, according to the way they interact with one another.
The up and down quarks have fractional electric charges (+2/3 for the up, -1/3 for the down). So you can easily find which combinations of quarks can form a proton or a neutron. The quarks have never been observed in isolation, but always in the close company of one or two other quarks.
The electron e is the most familiar example of the other class of particle, the leptons. It is much lighter than its quark counterparts, and has an electric charge of -1. It is paired with a ghostly lepton partner known as a neutrino, denoted by the Greek letter v (nu), which has no electric charge and little or no mass! Neutrinos are so elusive that they can pass through the entire earth without interacting. The sun is our biggest "nearby" source of neutrinos: in the process of burning fuel to produce heat and light, the sun emits about 2 x 1038 neutrinos per second, several trillion of which have passed through YOU while you read this sentence!
These four particles, the up and down quarks, the electron and the neutrino, account for essentially all matter we see in the universe.
It turns out, however, that these particles are not alone. Exploring further, physicists have discovered other fundamental particles which "look" and "feel" very much like the quarks and leptons we met earlier, but which exist for only a fraction of a second before turning into their stable siblings - the up quark, down quark, electron or neutrino.
Experiments over the last few decades have revealed that there are two other sets of fundamental particles. These new particles behave in many ways like the familiar u, d, e and n, but are heavier and short-lived versions of them. For this reason, we call them the second and third generation particles.
Physicists have given the new pairs of quarks the names CHARM and STRANGE, and TOP and BOTTOM. The second and third generation counterparts of the electron are known as the MUON and TAU.
Only in 1995 was the last of these particles, the top quark, discovered by physicists working at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago.
Our list of fundamental matter particles is not quite complete. Each member of our quark and lepton family has an ANTIMATTER partner, which is in many ways like its mirror-image (it has the opposite electric charge for example). Particle and ANTIPARTICLE make an interesting double act; if they get too close together, they annihilate in a burst of other particles with the same total energy. The amount of energy is described by perhaps the most famous equation in physics: Einstein's E=mc2, which says that matter and energy are in fact different manifestations of the same thing.
A baseball-antibaseball collision would result in an explosion with a force roughly equal to that of ten million tons of TNT.
The phenomena of antimatter and annihilation are very important to particle physicists, who often produce and collide particles and antiparticles in the laboratory, and use the resulting "mini-explosions" as a tool for concentrating a lot of energy in a very small region. Out of these bursts of energy, many new particles may be produced. In order to explore the possible existence of new phenomena, physicists try to produce them in higher and higher energy collisions - hence the name High Energy Physics.
What is a force? An obvious example might be the effect of someone kicking a football: the footballer's foot makes the ball move by imparting a force on the ball. We have a good "intuitive" feel for this kind of force, where the force is applied when one object touches another.
There are other examples, however, where the force between two objects acts without the objects touching each other. Gravity, which PULLS falling bodies (stones, apples) towards the Earth, and magnetism, which PUSHES two magnet north poles apart, are examples of such forces. How does this happen?
Physicists now know that these forces are all due to the exchange of invisible FORCE CARRIER particles.
How many different types of fundamental force are there? In the same way that our understanding of the fundamental matter particles has changed over time, so has our understanding of the forces between them. For example, until the middle of the last century, electricity and magnetism were believed to be two different forces, but were shown by Maxwell in 1873 to be different aspects of a SINGLE force: electromagnetism. And it was only at the turn of this century that physicists discovered two new forces, beyond those of gravity and electromagnetism that were already well-established.
We may distinguish four types of force which describe the interactions between particles: GRAVITY, ELECTROMAGNETISM, and the STRONG and WEAK forces. Of these, two (gravity and electromagnetism) act over large distances, while the other two (strong and weak) only come into play within the very small distances of the subatomic world.
In fact, two of these four forces, electromagnetism and the weak force, have recently been shown to be different aspects of the SAME force, called the ELECTROWEAK force. We can hope for further unification in the future.
Let's take a look at each of the forces in turn.
Of the four forces, gravity is the most familiar to us in our everyday lives. The gravitational force is an attractive force between all objects which have mass, and is responsible for effects as seemingly diverse as an apple falling to the earth and the orbital motion of a planet around the sun.
In the subatomic world however, where we are dealing with very small masses, gravity is so weak as to be negligible. This is one reason gravity is not included as part of the Standard Model of particle physics.
The carrier particle for the gravitational force is believed to be the GRAVITON. The graviton is predicted to exist (in accordance with our picture of force carrier particles) but has not been discovered. New experiments are currently underway to try to see the effect of gravitons emitted by large masses moving quickly, for example a star being "swallowed" by a black hole. Such cataclysmic "collisions" are expected to send gravitational waves traveling through the universe, much like the ripples on a pond when a rock is thrown into it.
The other force which is responsible for many everyday effects is electromagnetism. If you are reading this sitting down, the force exerted by your chair to stop you from falling to the floor, for example, or the frictional force which keeps your feet from sliding as you walk along the sidewalk, are due to electromagnetism.
As its name implies, electromagnetism combines both the effects of electrical charge and magnetism, as different aspects of a single force. The symmetry between these two aspects is reflected in the existence of two types of electric charge (positive/negative) and two types of magnets (north/south poles). In both cases, two objects of the same sign tend to push each other apart, whereas objects of opposite signs tend to attract each other.
The force carrier particle associated with electromagnetism is called the PHOTON. Light, radio waves and microwaves are all examples of photons, the only difference between them being that they are photons of different energies.
The two remaining forces are less familiar to us in our everyday world. They act only over the very short distances of the atomic nucleus (10-15 meters), and yet have important effects on objects as large as the universe itself!
The strong force (so-called because it is very strong!) acts only between quarks. In fact, we might have guessed already that such a force has to exist by considering what keeps the nucleus together. We know that the nucleus contains protons (which are positively charged) and neutrons (which have no charge) packed very close to each other. Since positive charges repel each other, why don't the protons fly apart from each other, making all atoms (and hence all matter!) explode? It is the strong force which overcomes this repulsion and keeps the nucleus together. The carrier particles of the strong force are called GLUONS, because they GLUE the quarks together.
Even though there are six types of quarks and six types of leptons (grouped in three generations), all stable matter in the universe is made of only the lightest quarks (u,d) and leptons (e) from the first generation. Why is this?
The weak force is responsible for the fact that the second and third generation particles are unstable, and decay into their lighter first generation brothers and sisters. It also accounts for certain types of radioactivity. There are three carrier particles associated with the weak force, identifiable by their electric charges, called the W+, W-, and Z bosons.
The neutrino has no strong or electromagnetic interaction and feels only the weak force. That is why neutrinos are so elusive that they can pass through the entire earth without interacting.
We have now met all of the fundamental matter particles (six quarks and six leptons) and also the force carrier particles which govern each of the four kinds of interactions between them.
We know from past experience however, that this may not be the end of the road in our quest to understand what are the most basic building blocks of the world we see around us.
To study the building blocks of matter, physicists collide accelerated particles. The particle accelerators work by manipulating the way charged particles feel electric and magnetic forces.
The highest beam energy of both protons and antiprotons is presently 0.95 TeV and is achieved in the Tevatron at Fermilab near Chicago, where protons and antiprotons are accelerated and collided together. When combined at the collision points, 1.9 TeV = 1.9 trillion electron volts (see box), are available to create new particles. Using this record energy, Fermilab experimenters discovered the heaviest quark - the top quark.
The Large Electron Positron collider, LEP, accelerates and collides electrons and positrons (i.e. antielectrons) at a combined energy of up to 0.19 TeV at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) near Geneva. These lepton collisions are particularly suitable for the precise study of the weak force carriers Z and W.
The next step in energy is the Large Hadron Collider, LHC, due to switch on in 2005 at CERN. It will ultimately collide beams of protons at an energy of 14 TeV. Beams of lead nuclei will also be accelerated, smashing together with a collision energy of 1150 TeV.
ATLAS and CMS are the two enormous detectors being built to study proton collisions at the LHC. Physicists and engineers from Columbia University Nevis Labs are participating in ATLAS.
Such detectors consist of many layers of different devices used to measure properties of the particles emerging in the collisions. Closest to the beam are tracking devices to keep tabs on the particles as they fly away from the collision. Then come energy measuring devices, calorimeters, in which most particles lose all their energy and stop. The outermost layer consists again of trackers to identify any detectable particles which get this far. Magnets embedded within the detector bend the tracks of charged particles, helping to identify and measure them.
You can find more information plus links on our Web site for high school students:
A good way to learn about particle physics: work on the Web site "Particle Adventure"
We recommend you start from there.
"The Higgs Boson" by M. J. G. Veltman, November 1986
"The Stanford Linear Collider" by J. R. Rees, October 1989
"The LEP Collider" by S. Myers and E. Picasso, July 1990
"Tracking and Imaging Elementary Particles" by H. Breuker, H. Drevermann, C. Grab, A. Rademakers and H. Stone, August 1991
"The Number of Families of Matter" by G. J. Feldman and J. Steinberger, February 1991
"The Tevatron" by L. M. Lederman, March 1991
"The Silicon Microstrip Detector" by A. M. Litke and A. S. Schwarz, May 1995
"Quarks by Computer" by D. H. Weingarten, February 1996
"Cosmic Rays at the Energy Frontier" by J. W. Cronin, T. K. Gaisser and S. P. Swordy, January 1997
"The Discovery of the Top Quark" by T. M. Liss and P. L. Tipton, September 1997
Educational materials from the American Physical Society, BNL, CERN, the Contemporary Physics Education Project (CPEP), Fermilab, LBNL and Nando.net are gratefully acknowledged.