This blog is all about particle physics and particle physicists. We can all agree, I suppose, on the notion of the particle physicist, right? There are even plenty of nice pictures up here! But do we know or are we aware of what a particle really is? This fundamental question tantalized me from the very beginning of my studies and before addressing more involved topics I think it is worth spending some time on this concept. Through the years I probably changed my opinion several times, according to the philosophy underlying the topic that I was investigating. Moreover, there’s probably not a single answer to this question.
- The Standard Model: from geometry to detectors
The human mind conceived the Standard Model of Particle Physics to give a shape on the blackboard to the basic ingredients of particle physics: it is a field theory, with quantization rules, namely a quantum field theory and its roots go deep down to differential geometry.
But we know that “particles” like the Higgs boson have been discovered through complex detectors, relying on sophisticated electronic systems, tons of Monte Carlo simulations and data analysis. Quite far away from geometry, isn’t it?
So the question is: how do we fill this gap between theory and experiment? What do theoreticians think about and experimentalists see through the detectors? Furthermore, does a particle’s essence change from its creation to its detection?
- Essence and representation: the wavefunction
Let’s start with simple objects, like an electron. Can we imagine it as a tiny thing floating here and there? Mmm. Quantum mechanics already taught us that it is something more: it does not rotate around an atomic nucleus like the Earth around the Sun (see, e.g., Bohr’s model). The electron is more like a delocalized “presence” around the nucleus quantified by its “wavefunction”, a mathematical function that gives the probability of finding the electron at a certain place and time.
Let’s think about it: I just wrote that the electron is not a localized entity but it is spread in space and time through its wavefunction. Fine, but I still did not say what an electron is.
I have had long and intensive discussions about this question. In particular I remember one with my housemate (another theoretical physicist) that was about to end badly, with the waving of frying pans at each other. It’s not still clear to me if we agreed or not, but we still live together, at least.
Back to the electron, we could agree on considering its essence as its abstract definition, namely being one of the leptons in the Standard Model. But the impossibility of directly accessing it forces me to identify it with its most trustful representation, namely the wavefunction. I know its essence, but I cannot directly (i.e. with my senses) experience it. My human powers stop to the physical manifestation of its mathematical representation: I cannot go further.
Renè Magritte represented the difference between the representation of an object and the object itself in a famous painting “The treachery of images”:
“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, it says, namely “This is not a pipe”. He is right, the picture is its representation. The pipe is defined as “A device for smoking, consisting of a tube of wood, clay, or other material with a small bowl at one end” and we can directly experience it. So its representation is not the pipe itself.
As I explained, this is somehow different in the case of the electron or other particles, where experience stops to the representation. So, according to my “humanity”, the electron is its wavefunction. But, to be consistent with what I just claimed: can we directly feel its wavefunction? Yes, we can. For example we can see its trace in a cloud chamber, or more elaborate detectors. Moreover, electricity and magnetism are (partly) manifestations of electron clouds in matter, and we experience those in everyday life.
You may wonder why I go through all these mental wanderings: just write down your formulas, calculate and be happy with (hopefully!) discoveries.
I do it because philosophy matters. And is nice. And now that we are a bit more aware of the essence of things that we are investigating, we can move a step forward and start addressing Quantum Chromo Dynamics (QCD), from its basic foundations to the latest results released by the community. I hope to have sufficiently stimulated your curiosity to follow me during the next steps!
Again, I want to stress that this is my own perspective, and maybe someone else would answer these questions in a different way. For example, what do you think?