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Lucie de Nooij | NIKHEF | The Netherlands

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What the Q do we know?

[Disclaimer: This is not a overview of the history of physics. This is an overview of MY history in physics.]

It occurred to me in the last couple of years that the history of physics had involved an inflation of the names of the different theories. As soon as the new model arises it old one, on which it is based, is suddenly “Classical” and “Standard”, the modern theory gets fancy names like “Quantum” and “New”. Today, we were confronted with the problems in the Standard Model. The Standard Model describes the fundamental particles and forces and is therefore of not to be neglected importance to particle physicists. It took me roughly six years to get a grasp on the Standard Model, only to find out that is incomplete. We need lot’s of New Physics and Super Symmetry to “fix” the Standard Model. Darn.
When starting on physics, one starts typically by looking on processes that take place in our human-frame. Things have masses of 1 to 1000 kg and move at speeds of zero to 1000 km/h. An exercise to go with this would be to calculate the braking distance of a 800-kg car that drives on a highway. I won’t deny the possible advantage of knowing this number, but unfortunately this kind of physics hardly compares to the physics in university. In the Netherlands, high school physics ends with radio-active decays. Pierre and Marie got a Noble Prize for the discovery of these decays in the 1890’s.
The first Monday of the first year in university the students get to meet Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity (TSR). Irreversibly sending everything you learned in high school to the classical era. In this class speeds are pimped towards the speed of light (c=229 792 458 m / s). From TSR it becomes clear that at very high speeds space and time act together in a four-dimensional space-time. At those speeds all sorts of weird things happen: object have different size and masses from different viewpoints and mass and energy are equal except for a factor of c-squared. (You can think of the formula, I suppose.) We have now arrived to 1905, when the TRS was published.
In the next year you are taken further form our day-to-day life during the courses Quantum Mechanics I and II. QM is relevant for very small masses, such as for electrons (the mass of the electron is 0.00000000000000000000000000000091 kg). The central message is that real particles have some calculable probability to be in a specific place. Here, my imagination left me. Luckily, I am not the only one, my teacher quoted Pauli (I think) when he said “When I close one eye, I see a wave. When I close the other, I see a particle. When I open both my eyes, I go crazy”. Do not try to draw/understand/imagine this, it doesn’t work. Nice.
In the third year, you are ready to really learn that the language spoken in physics in math. It took me many hours of total despair, but then you see Maxwell’s formula’s of electrodynamics (1873) in Einstein’s space-time conventions. I can really appreciate the beauty of it, but maybe not that day right away.
Congrats, if you are

Quantum joke: "Sir, do you have any idea how fast you were driving?" "No, but I can tell you exactly where I was"

Quantum joke: "Sir, do you have any idea how fast you were driving?" "No, but I can tell you exactly where I was"

still with me, you are now ready to hear about the Standard Model and its shortcomings. But I have to get back to my PhD-class, so I will definitely come back to that. Maybe I also want to convince you that there different ways to look at the world. And all of them are equally interesting and complete in their own way.

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