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Kyle Cranmer | USLHC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

A fresh look for the standard model

(Note: This is an updated version of a post that I originally made on my personal website theoryandpractice.org.)

Recently I’ve been more involved in communication, education, and outreach activities via the “Snowmass” Community Summer Study.  One of the goals we discussed was to get to the point that the public is more aware of the fundamental particles.  Ideally, we’d like something as iconic as the periodic table (which is rotated from Mendeleev’s original).

The periodic table


Our standard graphic for the standard model builds on this tabular format, which is not unreasonable with the three generations of fermions for the columns and rows pointing to the up/down pairing of the SU(2) symmetry in the weak force.  It’s a cute graphic, but it has a number of problems for communicating with the public

  1. the Higgs is absent
  2. the 3-d effect is meaningless and is second only to our notorious use of Comic Sans for painting physicists as being inept in the graphic design department


standardmodel standard


It seems easy enough to add the Higgs to this table, but there seems no agreement on where to put it as you can see from Google’s image search.


From a physicists point of view there are some other problems that actually harm those starting to learn the standard model in detail

  1. there symmetry for the strong force (the RGB colors of the quarks) is not reflected at all leading to the idea that there is only one type of up quark.
  2. the complications about the left- and right- handed parts of the leptons in the weak interaction
  3. the mixing between the quarks
  4. the rows and columns don’t mean anything for the force carriers, and any sort of group-theoretic structure for the gauge bosons is missing

In June, I went to the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival for the premiere screening of Particle Fever.  It’s a great film that humanizes fundamental particle physics in an emotional, funny, and romantic way.  It also has some great graphics.  One of my favorite graphics was a new way of representing the fundamental particles.  During the after party of the premiere, the director Mark Levinson gave me the back story (which I forgot about until he reminded me)

It was actually our brilliant editor, Walter Murch, who had been obsessing about finding an iconic representation for the Standard Model equivalent to the Periodic Table. He wanted something that was accurate, meaningful, elegant and simple. One morning he came into the edit room and told me he had had a “benzene ring” dream – an idea for a circular representation of the SM. I think David [Kaplan] and I may have suggested a couple of small modifications, but essentially it was the “artist” who trumped the physicists in devising what I hope becomes an iconic representation of the fundamental particles of physics!


Particle Fever Standard Model Graphic


Here’s what I like about it

  1. it looks complete (which the standard model is in a certain sense), unlike like a table that can keep being appended with rows and columns
  2. it has a fresh, flat design that lends itself way to an iconic image (stickers, t-shirts, etc.)
  3. It’s round, which evokes notions of symmetry
  4. it is minimal, but it still has some basic structure
    1. rings of fermions, vector bosons, scalar (Higgs) boson
    2. quarks/leptons are top/bottom or red/green
    3. families are still there in the clockwise orientation
  5. the Higgs is central (I’m kind of kidding, but the Higgs is a unique, central part of the theory and it has gathered a huge amount of attention to the field)

Of course, the graphic is not perfect.  I’ve thought about variations.  For instance, rearranging the fermions from a clockwise oriented flow to a left/right and top/bottom symmetry for the quark/lepton and weak force (SU(2) doublet) structure.  One could play with color a bit so that the up/down-type quarks and leptons have a common coloring in some way.  However, all of these changes also can be given the same criticism I gave the standard standard model graphic at the top.  For instance, focusing on the weak interaction over the strong interaction.

After the  original post I got a few comments on the graphic.  Some didn’t like the idea that it looked complete, because we know the standard model is not the full story (Dark Matter, baryogensis, neutrino masses, etc.).  While it is certainly true fundamental physics is not complete, the standard model is.  Near the end of this trailer for Particle Fever, you see this standard model graphic dressed up with a Penrose tiling and some supersymmetric friends.  The other complaint was that it suggested that the force carriers only interact with specific particles (g with d,s,b; γ with u,c,t; Z with neutrinos; and W with charged leptons).  I guess so, but that same kind of geometrical/semantic connection was also there with the standard graphic that we use.  Any graphic will be prone to these types of criticisms from the experts, so we must weigh those objections against the gain in communicating a more streamlined message.

In the end I think it would behoove the physics community to popularize a fresh, iconic image for the standard model and use the public’s excitement of the Higgs discovery as impetus to educate the general public about the basics of fundamental particle physics.


EDIT: You can now buy a shirt or poster with the Particle Fever Standard Model graphic here:

  • Thanks for this great article!
    It always seemed to me that the traditional graphic was somehow arbitrary and kind of uninformative. But I blamed my lack of knowledge in particle physics for my thoughts. 😉
    The circular presentation is quite elegant! I like it.

    Do you know when the “Particle Fever” movie will be released?

  • I posted the fresh design on our FB page, and I got an unexcpedted comment:
    “Better than the old one, but I can’t help to think that is something astrologers would happily take —it even has twelve thingies!”

    Now looking more carefully, the inner circle is made of four elements, like the four elements!

    But I like so much how it looks when SUSY particle are added, that I do not see how to get rid of the 12 houses feeling without ruining the design!

  • Kyle Cranmer

    Hi Sebastiean!

    The Particle Fever movie will be in a series of film festivals this year, so keep an eye out. I’m not sure when it will be released. Keep tabs at here:


  • Steve the fox

    Although I like the new design, I don’t think it is perfect. It doesn’t seem to address any of the points in your numbered list. Additionally, it shows four different types of gauge boson, which would lead people to think that there are four distinct fundamental forces addressed by the standard model.

    On that basis, I have created a modified design, which you can see at: http://i1143.photobucket.com/albums/n621/Slowbrownfox/Physics/StandardModel.png

    As you will see, I make no claims to be a graphic designer!

    The following changes have been made:

    1. Rather than dividing the inner ring into four quarters, the forces have been represented by arcs. Each arc extends round the ring as far as those fermions which are affected by the relevant force. So the weak force, which affects all fermions, is a complete ring; the electromagnetic force does not cover the neutrinos; and the strong force is limited to the quarks.
    This tries to address the final complaint. Note that the weakest force is on the outside and getting stronger towards the middle.

    2. The weak force ring contains a left hand (which could be replaced by a left arrow) to remind us that the effect is only on left-handed leptons.

    3. The quarks and gluons are notched to suggest division into 3/8 parts, whilst suggesting that these are linked.

    4. The Higgs has been made purple, to differentiate it from the background and because I like purple.

    Any comments, suggestions, criticism gratefully received.


  • Chris

    I’m all in favor of the update — something that will go on t-shirts.

    I have not solution to the observations about your design. (If I had a better idea I’d sketch it up and share….) So, I’ll just make some helpful comments.

    1. Your design strongly implies that gammas have a special relation to u,c,t and that gluons to d,s,b. This is just as misleading as the box diagram.

    2. Perhaps you want to imply “orbits” as another famous model does: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CopernicSystem.png

    3. There is something inviting about the periodic table having empty squares at the end. Does this inspire students to become scientists so they can discover the next element?

    4. Please do not give the impression that the standard model is so perfect that the puzzle is completely solved and no more work needs to be done!

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  • Victoria Martin

    Hi Kyle, Is it okay if I use this in my undergraduate lectures? I know we ppers normally borrow images without asking, but I’m going to be a good example to my students this year!
    Thanks, Victoria.

  • Yes! Particularly for educational purposes. If you want to attribute it, you could mention Walter Murch or the film Particle Fever.

    You can now buy a shirt or poster with the Particle Fever Standard Model graphic here:

  • Paul Logman

    Hi Kyle, we want to write something for a Dutch science teacher’s magazine. Is it okay for us to use this graphic representation of the standard model in such a magazine? Of course in it we will refer to Walter Murch and the film Particle Fever.