The Quantum Universe
Everything that can happen does happen
Paperback : 21 Jun 2012
From the bestselling authors of Why does E=mc2? comes The Quantum Universe, in which Brian Cox, presenter of the BBC's Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe, and Jeff Forshaw go on a brilliantly ambitious mission to show that everyone can understand the deepest questions of science.
But just what is quantum physics? How does it help us understand our amazing world? Where does it leave Newton and Einstein? And why, above all, can we be sure that the theory is good?
Here, Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw give us the real science behind the bizarre behaviour of the atoms and energy that make up the universe, and reveal exactly how everything that can happen, does happen.
The Origin of Mass
By introducing the idea that particles can branch as well as hop we have entered into the domain of Quantum Field Theory, and hopping and branching is, to a large extent, all there is to it. We have, however, been rather negligent in our discussion of mass, for the good reason that we have been saving the best until last.
Modern-day particle physics aims to provide an answer to the question ‘what is the origin of mass?’ and it does so with the help of a beautiful and subtle piece of physics and a new particle – new in the sense that we have not yet really encountered it in this book, and new in the sense that nobody on Earth has ever encountered one ‘face to face’. The particle is named the Higgs boson, and the LHC has it firmly in its sights. At the time of writing this book in September 2011, there have been tantalizing glimpses, perhaps, of a Higgs-like object in the LHC data, but there are simply not enough to decide one way or the other. It may well be that, as you read this book, the situation has changed and the Higgs is a reality. Or it may be that the interesting signals have vanished under further scrutiny. The particularly exciting thing about the question of the origin of mass is that the answer is extremely interesting beyond the obvious desire to know what mass is.
Empty Space Isn't Empty
One of the primary reasons that eighty-five countries around the world have come together to build and operate this vast, audacious experiment is to hunt for the mechanism that is responsible for generating the masses of the fundamental particles. The most widely accepted theory for the origin of mass works by providing an explanation for the zig-zagging: it posits a new fundamental particle that the other particles ‘bump into’ on their way through the Universe.
That particle is the Higgs boson. According to the Standard Model, without a Higgs the fundamental particles would hop from place to place without any zig-zagging and the Universe would be a very different place. But if we fill empty space with Higgs particles then they can act to deflect particles, making them zig-zag and, as we have just learnt, that leads to the emergence of ‘mass’. It is rather like trying to walk through a crowded pub – one gets buffeted from side-to-side and ends up taking a zig-zag path towards the bar. The Higgs mechanism is named after Edinburgh theorist Peter Higgs and it was introduced into particle physics in 1964. The idea was obviously very ripe because several people came up with the idea at the same time – Higgs of course, and also Robert Brout and François Englert working in Brussels and Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagan and Tom Kibble in London. Their work was itself built on the earlier efforts of many others, including Heisenberg, Yoichiro Nambu, Jeffrey Goldstone, Philip Anderson and Weinberg. The full realization of the idea, for which Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam and Weinberg received the Nobel Prize in 1979, is no less than the Standard Model of particle physics. The idea is simple enough – empty space is not empty, and this leads to zig-zagging and therefore mass. But clearly we have some more explaining to do. How can it be that empty space is jammed full of Higgs particles – wouldn’t we notice this in our everyday lives, and how did this strange state of affairs come about in the first place? It certainly sounds like a rather extravagant proposition. We have also not explained how it can be that some particles (like photons) have no mass while others (like W bosons and top quarks) weigh in with masses comparable to that of an atom of silver or gold.
The second question is easier to answer than the first, at least superficially. Particles only ever interact with each other through a branching rule and Higgs particles are no different in that regard. The branching rule for a top quark includes the possibility that it can couple to a Higgs particle, and the corresponding shrinking of the clock (remember all branching rules come with a shrinking factor) is much less than it is in the case of the lighter quarks. That is ‘why’ a top quark is so much heavier than an up quark. This doesn’t explain why the branching rule is what it is, of course. The current answer to that is the disappointing ‘because it is’. It’s on the same footing as the question ‘Why are there three generations of particles?’ or ‘Why is gravity so weak?’ Similarly, photons do not have any branching rule that couples them to Higgs particles and as a result they do not interact with them. This, in turn, means that they do not zig-zag and have no mass. Although we have passed the buck to some extent, this does feel like some kind of an explanation, and it is certainly true that if we can detect Higgs particles at the LHC and check that they couple to the other particles in this manner then we can legitimately claim to have gained a rather thrilling insight into the way Nature works.
The first of our outstanding questions is a little trickier to explain – namely, how can it be that empty space is full of Higgs particles? To get warmed up, we need to be very clear about one thing: quantum physics implies that there is no such thing as empty space. In fact, what we call ‘empty space’ is really a seething maelstrom of subatomic particles and there is no way to sweep them away and clean it up. Once we realize that, it becomes much less of an intellectual challenge to accept that empty space might be full of Higgs particles. But let’s take one step at a time.
You might imagine a tiny region of deep outer space, a lonely corner of the Universe millions of light years from a galaxy. As time passes it is impossible to prevent particles from appearing and then disappearing out of nothing. Why? It is because the process of the creation and annihilation of particle–anti-particle pairs is allowed by the rules. An example can be found in the lower diagram in Figure 10.5: imagine stripping away everything except for the electron loop – the diagram then corresponds to an electron–positron pair spontaneously appearing from nothing and then disappearing back into nothing. Because drawing a loop does not violate any of the rules of QED we must acknowledge that it is a real possibility; remember, everything that can happen does happen. This particular possibility is just one of an infinite number of ways that empty space can fizz and pop, and because we live in a quantum universe the correct thing to do is to add all the possibilities together. The vacuum, in other words, has an incredibly rich structure, made up out of all the possible ways that particles can pop in and out of existence.
That last paragraph introduced the idea that the vacuum is not empty, but we painted a rather democratic picture in which all of the elementary particles play a role. What is it about the Higgs particle that makes it special? If the vacuum were nothing other than a seething broth of matter–antimatter creation and annihilation, then all of the elementary particles would continue to have zero mass – the quantum loops themselves are not capable of delivering it.(3) Instead, we need to populate the vacuum with something different, and this is where the bath of Higgs particles enters.
(3) This is a subtle point and derives from the ‘gauge symmetry’, which underwrites the hopping and branching rules of the elementary particles.
Peter Higgs simply stipulated that empty space is packed with Higgs particles(4) and didn’t feel obliged to offer any deep explanation as to why. The Higgs particles in the vacuum provide the zig-zag mechanism and they are working overtime by interacting with each and every massive particle in the Universe, selectively retarding their motion to create mass. The net result of the interactions between ordinary matter and a vacuum full of Higgs particles is that the world goes from being a structureless place to a diverse and wonderful living world of stars, galaxies and people.
The big question of course is where those Higgs particles came from in the first place? The answer isn’t really known, but it is thought that they are the remnants of what is known as a phase transition that occurred sometime shortly after the Big Bang. If you are patient and watch the glass in your window as the temperature falls on a winter’s evening, you’ll see the structured beauty of ice crystals emerge as if by magic from the water vapour in the night air. The transition from water vapour to ice on cold glass is a phase transition – water molecules rearranging themselves into ice crystals; the spontaneous breaking of the symmetry of a formless vapour cloud triggered by a drop in temperature. Ice crystals form because it is energetically more favourable to do so. Just as a ball rolls down the side of a mountain to take up a lower energy in a valley, or electrons rearrange themselves around atomic nuclei to form the bonds that hold molecules together, so the sculpted beauty of a snowflake is a lower energy configuration of water molecules than a formless cloud of vapour.
We think that a similar thing happened early on in the Universe’s history. As the hot gas of particles that was the nascent Universe expanded and cooled, so it transpired that a Higgs-free vacuum was energetically disfavoured and a vacuum filled with Higgs particles was the natural state. The process really is similar to the way that water condenses into droplets or ice forms on a cold pane of glass. The spontaneous appearance of water droplets when they
(4) He was far too modest to call them by that name.
condense on a pane of glass creates the impression that those droplets simply emerged out of ‘nothing’. Similarly for the Higgs, in the hot stages just after the Big Bang the vacuum is seething with the fleeting quantum fluctuations (those loops in our Feynman diagrams), as particles and anti-particles pop out of nothing before disappearing again. However, something radical happens as the Universe cools and suddenly, out of nothing, just as the water drops appear on the glass, a ‘condensate’ of Higgs particles emerges, all held together by their mutual interactions in an ephemeral suspension through which the other particles propagate.
The idea that the vacuum is filled with material suggests that we, and everything else in the Universe, live out our lives inside a giant condensate that emerged as the Universe cooled down, just as the morning dew emerges with the dawn. Lest we think that the vacuum is populated merely as a result of Higgs particle condensation, we should also remark that there is even more to the vacuum than this. As the Universe cooled still further, quarks and gluons also condensed to produce what are, naturally enough, known as quark and gluon condensates. The existence of these is well established by experiments, and they play a very important role in our understanding of the strong nuclear force. In fact, it is this condensation that gives rise to the vast majority of the mass of protons and neutrons. The Higgs vacuum is, however, responsible for generating the observed masses for the elementary particles – the quarks, electrons, muons, taus and W and Z particles. The quark condensate kicks in to explain what happens when a cluster of quarks binds together to make a proton or a neutron. Interestingly, whilst the Higgs mechanism is relatively unimportant when it comes to explaining the mass of protons, neutrons and the heavier atomic nuclei, the converse is true when it comes to explaining the mass of the W and Z particles. For them, quark and gluon condensation would generate a mass of around 1 GeV in the absence of a Higgs particle, but their experimentally measured masses are closer to 100 times this. The LHC was designed to operate in the energy domain of the W and Z, where it can explore the mechanism responsible for their comparatively large masses. Whether that is the eagerly anticipated Higgs particle, or something hitherto undreamt of, only time and particle collisions will tell.
To put some rather surprising numbers on all of this, the energy stored up within 1 cubic metre of empty space as a result of quark and gluon condensation is a staggering 1035 joules, and the energy due to Higgs condensation is 100 times larger than this. Together, that’s the total amount of energy our Sun produces in 1,000 years. To be precise, this is ‘negative’ energy, because the vacuum is lower in energy than a Universe containing no particles at all. The negative energy arises because of the binding energy associated with the formation of the condensates, and is not by itself mysterious. It is no more glamorous than the fact that, in order to boil water (and reverse the phase transition from vapour to liquid), you have to put energy in.
What is mysterious, however, is that such a large and negative energy density in every square metre of empty space should, if taken at face value, generate a devastating expansion of the Universe such that no stars or people would ever form. The Universe would literally have blown itself apart moments after the Big Bang. This is what happens if we take the predictions for vacuum condensation from particle physics and plug them directly into Einstein’s equations for gravity, applied to the Universe at large. This heinous conundrum goes by the name of the cosmological constant problem and it remains one of the central problems in fundamental physics. Certainly it suggests that we should be very careful before claiming to really understand the nature of the vacuum and/or gravity. There is something absolutely fundamental that we do not yet understand. With that sentence, we come to the end of our story because we’ve reached the edge of our knowledge. The domain of the known is not the arena of the research scientist. Quantum theory, as we observed at the beginning of this book, has a reputation for difficulty and downright contrary weirdness, exerting as it does a rather liberal grip on the behaviour of the particles of matter. But everything we’ve described, with the exception of this final chapter, is known and well understood. Following evidence rather than common sense, we are led to a theory that is manifestly able to describe a vast range of phenomena, from the sharp rainbows emitted by hot atoms to fusion within stars. Putting the theory to use led to the most important technological breakthrough of the twentieth century – the transistor – a device whose operation would be inexplicable without a quantum view of the world.
Size : 129 x 198mm
Pages : 272
Published : 21 Jun 2012
Publisher : Penguin
The Quantum Universe
Everything that can happen does happen
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