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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 1998. Elementary-Particle Physics: Revealing the Secrets of Energy and Matter. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6045.



This report assesses the field of elementary-particle physics. The Committee on Elementary-Particle Physics of the National Research Council's Board on Physics and Astronomy was assembled to review what has been learned, to identify research priorities for the next two decades, and to describe the instruments and infrastructure needed to carry them out. This chapter introduces the main themes of the report.

The universe is constructed with remarkable economy. Galaxies and hummingbirds, computers and the neurons firing in our brains as we read this sentence—everything in the tangible world is built from about a hundred different kinds of atoms. Every atom, in turn, is a combination of just three different constituents: u quarks and d quarks (which in different combinations form protons and neutrons) and electrons. Up to the resolution of current experiments, no internal parts have been detected in quarks and leptons, so they are called elementary particles.

Although elementary particles are infinitesimal—smaller relative to a grain of sand than a grain of sand is to the entire Earth—the consequences of their properties are enormous. If, for example, the electron were much heavier, the universe would have evolved entirely differently: No atoms would exist, and the universe would now consist solely of electrically neutral particles. No stars would shine; no people would be around to wonder at the universe's origin or ultimate fate.

The richness of the phenomena in our universe, even biological systems, stems from the physical principles that operate on the scale of elementary par-

(Video) A Brief History Of Elementary Particles (Part 1)

ticles. Investigating these particles is, in effect, deciphering the genetic code for the universe: why it is the way it is and how it came to be that way. The goal of elementary-particle physics is to understand the world around us by identifying the elementary particles, understanding their properties, and learning how they interact.

Researchers proceed toward this goal along two avenues: (1) by conducting experiments and (2) by trying to determine the physical principles that account for the phenomena they observe—what theoretical physicist Richard Feynman called ''the patterns [in] the phenomena of nature [that are] not apparent to the eye, but only to the eye of analysis." The dialog between experimenters and theorists shapes the research priorities of the field: Experimental research is often guided by theoretical predictions; about as often, phenomena will turn up in experimental data that no one expected to find, and theorists endeavor to account for them.

Investigating phenomena on this almost unimaginably minute scale requires the most powerful microscopes ever built: devices known as particle accelerators. In a particle accelerator, beams of subatomic particles are boosted to nearly the speed of light and then brought into collision with either a stationary target or another beam of accelerated particles coming head-on. In these collisions, remarkably, matter is actually created. The particles that emerge from the collision point, like sparks radiating out from microscopic exploding fireworks, are not contained within the original colliding particles. They are created out of the energy of the collision according to the rules of relativistic quantum mechanics. The higher the energy of the collision, the heavier are the particles it can create. Such particles, although fundamental, are often ephemeral, existing only briefly before transforming themselves into more stable particles. High-energy accelerators thus provide elementary-particle physicists with the opportunity to study phenomena that they could otherwise not observe on Earth. Today's accelerators can collide particles with such high energies that, on a very small scale, they replicate the conditions prevailing when the universe was only a fraction of a second old and enable physicists to study the kinds of particles that long ago shaped the evolution of the universe, before the cosmos cooled off too much for these particles to continue to be produced.

If accelerators function as microscopes, then the eyes and brains that see and record the phenomena that accelerators reveal are detectors. In essence, detectors are devices that surround the collision point to capture enough information about the particles produced to deduce their properties: Are they electrically charged? Are they light or relatively massive? How long do they exist before being transformed into other kinds of particles?

Over the past hundred years, advances in experimental instrumentation and technique have revealed subatomic phenomena that scientists in earlier centuries had no idea existed. These phenomena, in turn, have led to discoveries of physical principles that are crucial for understanding how the universe is put together.

(Video) 1. elementary particles

Page 18 Cite

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 1998. Elementary-Particle Physics: Revealing the Secrets of Energy and Matter. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6045.


In addition, these increasingly sophisticated ventures in both experiment and theory have opened profitable new avenues in many fields. Last year, for example, marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the first discovery of an elementary particle. In 1897, British physicist J.J. Thomson concluded that in experiments with cathode-ray tubes, he had seen negatively charged constituents of atoms. Thomson called these entities "corpuscles"; other physicists referred to them by the name that stuck: "electrons." Around the same time, in an enormously fruitful period of research into the nature of matter and energy, x rays and radioactivity were also discovered. When classical concepts of physics proved incapable of explaining these phenomena, quantum mechanics was developed.

From this work emerged nothing less than a radically new picture of nature, which in turn had dramatic consequences for other branches of science and for technology. Physicist John Bardeen noted that "quantum theory opened up the possibility of understanding the properties of solids from their atomic and electronic structure," which led him and his colleagues at Bell Laboratories to the invention of the transistor and related devices. The revolution in electronics that followed brought new applications in computers, medical electronics, industrial controls, and communications that would have been impractical or impossible with the vacuum tubes that transistors replaced. Quantum mechanics also turned out to be essential for understanding basic chemistry, the properties of materials, molecular biology, and many other aspects of the physical world.

Today's experiments in elementary-particle physics can investigate phenomena 1012 times smaller than Thomson's. Yet, thanks to many ingenious advances in instrumentation, the actual scale of the largest modern experiments is only 10,000 times greater. Most of the experiments are conducted at a few large accelerator laboratories in the United States, Europe, and Asia, although some researchers obtain data from other sources, such as very high-energy cosmic rays from outer space. Many different investigations can be conducted using a single large detector; although the detector project is frequently referred to as one "experiment," in essence a large detector is comparable to a whole laboratory in other fields of science. A decade or more can be spent on a detector's design, construction, use, and improvement. Almost all elementary-particle physics detectors are designed, built, and operated by groups that involve more than one institution; a typical group includes university faculty members and their students, accelerator laboratory staff members, postdoctoral researchers, engineers, and technicians. Collaborations range in size from 30 to more than 1,000 people; most are now international.

Creative problem solving is called for at almost every stage of both the experimental and the theoretical sides of elementary-particle physics. Elementary-particle physicists are intimately involved in the design and construction of their tools. Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers have the opportunity to master—and help develop—new approaches to integrated circuit design and

Page 19 Cite

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 1998. Elementary-Particle Physics: Revealing the Secrets of Energy and Matter. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6045.


fabrication, new algorithms and software, new techniques in precision engineering. Young researchers frequently devote most of their waking hours to their work; as in medical school, this total immersion is an important and valuable aspect of their training. Their experience in creatively solving novel problems, working with sophisticated technologies, discerning patterns hidden in massive data sets, and collaborating on large, complex projects is invaluable, whether they remain in elementary-particle physics or go into other fields, as more than half of them now do.

Modern elementary-particle physics experiments have enabled physicists to test theories that predict the behavior of elementary particles under extreme conditions, which sheds light on how the universe itself behaved in its earliest moments of existence. These cosmological insights, in turn, have brought physics to the point where the specific questions that are next on the elementary-particle physics agenda have the potential to illuminate some profound general questions—such as, What is matter? and What is force?—questions that only a few decades ago would have belonged to the realm of philosophy, rather than to experimental science.

Physicists expect that the next generation of experiments, which will be conducted with more powerful instruments than ever before, will reveal new phenomena crucial for understanding the origins of essential quantities, such as the mass of the fundamental particles, that at present can only be measured but not explained.

Although many of the specific questions that are ripe for investigation require fairly technical discussions to explain, the more general issues can be appreciated without specialized knowledge. These issues include the following:

  • Why are there three generations of elementary particles, and what accounts for their seemingly arbitrary progression of masses? In addition to u and d quarks and the electron, one more elementary particle plays a role in our everyday lives: the electron neutrino. These four particles form a complete generation whose interactions can be described with precision by the theory that is now universally accepted by elementary-particle physicists. However, for reasons particle physicists do not yet fully understand, nature has been generous. There are two more complete generations of elementary particles, each analogous to the first one. They obey exactly the same principles as the particles in the first generation. They differ only in the masses of the analogues of the electron and the u and d quarks. For example, one of the electron's counterparts has 206 times the mass of the electron; the other has a mass 3,640 times the electron's. In a recent experimental triumph, the heaviest particle to be observed in the third generation, the t quark, weighed in with a mass about 60,000 times greater than its counterpart, the u quark. Theorists have proposed specific physical processes to explain the origin of these particles' masses; these ideas will be tested in the next generation of experiments.

(Video) The Map of Particle Physics | The Standard Model Explained

Page 20 Cite

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 1998. Elementary-Particle Physics: Revealing the Secrets of Energy and Matter. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6045.


  • Can Einstein's dream of unifying the known forces be realized? Phenomena governed by the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces can be described by a unified mathematical theory, but for many years no one could see how to include gravity in the description. Today, however, one of the most exciting areas of theoretical physics is an approach that would unify all four forces. It is called string theory, and some believe it represents a scientific revolution on the scale of quantum mechanics. Experiments at existing and planned accelerators will search for phenomena that are expected if string theory is correct, such as the existence of supersymmetric particles and the Higgs boson.

  • Why is there apparently more matter than antimatter? Every known type of particle has an antiparticle counterpart, with the same mass and opposite electric charge. (Neutral particles either are their own antiparticles [e.g., the photon and the neutral pion], or have distinct antiparticles [e.g., the neutron and the antineutron].) When a particle and its antiparticle come close together, they are annihilated. Generally, whenever matter is created, an equal amount of antimatter is also created, so one would expect matter and antimatter to have been present in equal amounts in the early universe. If that were true, however, the universe should now be an excruciatingly dull place, since almost all pairs of matter and antimatter particles would have had more than enough time to encounter and annihilate each other. Why is there so much matter around—in the form of galaxies, solar systems, planets, and people?

Of course, as in any branch of science, serendipity and unforeseen developments are bound to play a key role in shaping the course of this work. Just as the Hubble Space Telescope is used to study many different phenomena, not all of which were even known when it was being built, particle accelerators and detectors are used to investigate issues that are recognized or become amenable to experiment only after the instruments are running. Elementary-particle theorist Steven Weinberg observed recently that physicists frequently "do not know in advance what are the right questions to ask, and we often do not find out until we are close to an answer."

Whatever future research in elementary particle physics reveals about the world around us, one thing is certain: It will inspire awe for the intrinsic beauty of the fundamental principles that shape our universe.

The following chapters report on the field of elementary-particle physics in a way that we think is accessible to readers without scientific backgrounds. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 present a comprehensive picture of the scientific status of the field today and how it reached this point. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 describe the research objectives and instruments for the next two decades. Chapters 8, 9, and 10 describe the structure of the field and how it relates to other branches of physics and technology and to society at large.

Finally, Chapter 11 presents the committee's conclusions concerning the health of elementary-particle physics and its recommendations for the future.

(Video) How To Read Feynman Diagrams

(Video) Particle Physics Explained Visually in 20 min | Feynman diagrams


What is elementary particle physics? ›

In particle physics, an elementary particle or fundamental particle is a subatomic particle that is not composed of other particles.

Which was the first particle discovered which is still today believed to be elementary that is not made up of other constituents? ›

Electrons were the first of the modern elementary particles to be discovered. The mass of most nuclei is about twice the mass of the protons they contain. The additional mass is provided by another particle, the neutron, which has a mass very close to that of the proton but is electrically neutral.

How many elementary particles are in physics? ›

Electrons are probably the most familiar elementary particles, but the Standard Model of physics, which describes the interactions of particles and almost all forces, recognizes 10 total elementary particles.

What are the requirements for considering a given particle as an elementary particle? ›

For a particle to be considered as elementary, in the literal sense, a particle is considered to be elementary only if there is no evidence that it is made up of smaller constituents, they are thought to have no internal structure, meaning that researchers think about them as zero-dimensional points that take up no ...

What are the 4 types of particles? ›

Elementary particles
  • Fermions.
  • Bosons.
  • Hypothetical particles.

What are the 3 elementary particles? ›

Current particle physics identifies three basic types of known elementary particles: leptons, quarks and gauge bosons. The known leptons are the electron (e), muon (μ) and tau lepton (τ), and their corresponding neutrinos (ne, nμ, nτ).

Which elementary particle is most important in causing the release of nuclear energy? ›

During nuclear fission, a neutron collides with a uranium atom and splits it, releasing a large amount of energy in the form of heat and radiation. More neutrons are also released when a uranium atom splits.

Which was the first particle discovered which is still today believed to be an elementary particle? ›

The first subatomic particle to be discovered was the electron, identified in 1897 by J. J. Thomson. After the nucleus of the atom was discovered in 1911 by Ernest Rutherford, the nucleus of ordinary hydrogen was recognized to be a single proton. In 1932 the neutron was discovered.

Who founded the theory of elementary particles? ›

The Classical Era (1897–1932)

It is a little artificial to pinpoint such things, but I'd say that elementary particle physics was born in 1897, with J. J. Thomson's discovery of the electron [1].

What is the most elementary particle in the universe? ›

The elementary particle in question is called the top quark, and it's the most massive of all known elementary particles, contributing to a fundamental part of our understanding of the Universe.

What are the two known elementary particles? ›

The two most fundamental types of particles are quarks and leptons. The quarks and leptons are divided into 6 flavors corresponding to three generations of matter. Quarks (and antiquarks) have electric charges in units of 1/3 or 2/3's. Leptons have charges in units of 1 or 0.

Why are elementary particles important? ›

Elementary particles are the building blocks of the universe. All the other particles and matter in the universe are made up of elementary particles. For many years scientists thought that the atom was the smallest particle possible. Then they learned that the atom was made up of even smaller particles.

What are the 5 main points of the particle theory of matter? ›

3.2 state the postulates of the particle theory of matter (all matter is made up of particles; all particles are in constant motion; all particles of one substance are identical; temperature affects the speed at which particles move; in a gas, there are spaces between the particles; in liquids and solids, the particles ...

What are the characteristics of elementary particles of matter? ›

Particles present in the matter are very small in size. There are some attractive forces between the particles of matter. There is also space between the particles of matter.

What are the characteristics of elementary particles? ›

There are three basic properties that describe an elementary particle: 'mass', 'charge', and 'spin'.

What are the 7 forms of matter? ›

States of matter
  • Solid. Something is usually described as a solid if it can hold its own shape and is hard to compress (squash). ...
  • Liquid. In liquids, the molecules have the ability to move around and slide past each other. ...
  • Gas. ...
  • Plasma. ...
  • Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) ...
  • Changing states.
12 Apr 2010

What are the 13 types of matter? ›

13: States of Matter
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Liquidfills a container from bottom to tophigh
1 Feb 2022

What are the 9 types of matter? ›

Solids, liquids, gases, plasmas, and Bose-Einstein condensates (BEC) are different states of matter that have different physical properties. Solids are often hard, liquids fill containers, and gases surround us in the air.

What are the 12 quarks? ›

The Twelve Fundamental Particles
2 more rows

What is the basic particle of matter? ›

The fundamental particles of matter are protons, electrons, and neutrons.

How many types of particles exist? ›

There are two types of subatomic particles: elementary and composite particles. There are 36 confirmed fundamental particles, including anti-particles, according to Professor Craig Savage from the Australian National University.

Which is responsible for the release of energy from the atom bomb? ›

In sun, star and hydrogen bomb fusion reaction is responsible for release of energy, whereas in atom bomb process of fission is responsible for the release of energy.

What is the main source of nuclear energy? ›

Uranium is the fuel most widely used to produce nuclear energy. That's because uranium atoms split apart relatively easily. Uranium is also a very common element, found in rocks all over the world.

What is the ultimate source of energy for nuclear power? ›

It generates power through fission, which is the process of splitting uranium atoms to produce energy. The heat released by fission is used to create steam that spins a turbine to generate electricity without the harmful byproducts emitted by fossil fuels.

How many elementary particles are there in the universe? ›

Therefore the observable universe is defined as only the parts of the universe that are within 13.7 billion light years of us. The commonly accepted answer for the number of particles in the observable universe is 1080. This number would include the total of the number of protons, neutrons, neutrinos and electrons.

What is the most mysterious elementary particle? ›

Neutrinos may be the most mysterious particles in the universe. These ghostly entities zip around at nearly the speed of light and can fly through matter easily — a light-year's worth of lead would only stop about half of the neutrinos flying through it.

What is the difference between a subatomic particle and an elementary particle? ›

The term subatomic particle refers both to the true elementary particles, such as quarks and electrons, and to the larger particles that quarks form. Although both are elementary particles, electrons and quarks differ in several respects.

What are the main particle theory? ›

All matter is composed of tiny indivisible particles too small to see. These particles do not share the properties of the material they make up. There is nothing in the space between the particles that make up matter. The particles which make up matter are in constant motion in all physical states.

What particles make up the universe? ›

There are two categories of subatomic particles that comprise the matter in our universe: quarks and leptons. Quarks make up the protons and neutrons inside atoms and come in six different types, or “flavors.” Leptons, too, come in different flavors, including electrons and neutrinos.

What was the first particle? ›

The first entities thought to emerge were quarks, a fundamental particle, and gluons, which carry the strong force that glues quarks together. As the universe cooled further, these particles formed subatomic particles called hadrons, some of which we know as protons and neutrons.

What is the most powerful particle in the world? ›

The most energetic particles in the universe, UHECRs pack in ten million times more energy than the particles accelerated inside the Large Hadron Collider. The punch of a UHECR is equivalent to that of a baseball hurtling at 60 miles per hour—astonishingly conveyed in a mere mote the size of an atomic nucleus.

What is 90% of the universe made of? ›

NEW YORK — All the stars, planets and galaxies that can be seen today make up just 4 percent of the universe. The other 96 percent is made of stuff astronomers can't see, detect or even comprehend. These mysterious substances are called dark energy and dark matter.

What element is 75% of the early universe? ›

Hydrogen is an element, usually in the form of a gas, that consists of one proton and one electron. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, accounting for about 75 percent of its normal matter, and was created in the Big Bang.

What are the 3 new particles discovered? ›

The international LHCb collaboration at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has observed three never-before-seen particles: a new kind of “pentaquark” and the first-ever pair of “tetraquarks”, which includes a new type of tetraquark.

How does particle physics affect our lives? ›

The invention of the World Wide Web, the use of particle accelerators to treat cancer and contributions to the development of medical imaging techniques such as PET scans and MRIs are among the better known examples of particle physics innovations.

Why should I study particle physics? ›

Why do we study particle physics? Particle physics is the study of the fundamental particulate constituents of nature. Our knowledge of these constituents is important to understand the laws that shape our universe, how they manifest their will, and why things are the way they are.

How has particle physics changed the world? ›

Particle physicists developed the World Wide Web to give them a tool to communicate quickly and effectively with colleagues around the world. Few other technological advances in history have more profoundly affected the global economy and societal interactions than the Web.

What are the 4 principles of the particle model of matter? ›

Understand the macroscopic evidence for each of the four basic principles of the particle model of matter:
  • Matter is made of tiny particles.
  • There is empty space between the particles.
  • The particles are in constant motion.
  • There are forces that act between the particles.

What is the difference between matter and particle? ›

Matter is anything that has weight and takes up space. A particle is the smallest possible unit of matter. Understanding that matter is made of tiny particles too small to be seen can help us understand the behavior and properties of matter.

What is the 5th state matter? ›

Sometimes referred to as the 'fifth state of matter', a Bose-Einstein Condensate is a state of matter created when particles, called bosons, are cooled to near absolute zero (-273.15 degrees Celsius, or -460 degrees Fahrenheit).

What is an elementary particle example? ›

Particles currently thought to be elementary include electrons, the fundamental fermions (quarks, leptons, antiquarks, and antileptons, which generally are matter particles and antimatter particles), as well as the fundamental bosons (gauge bosons and the Higgs boson), which generally are force particles that mediate ...

What is elementary particle theory? ›

The Elementary Particle Theory program encompasses different theoretical tools for understanding the interaction of elementary particles at different energy scales. These include String Theory, Quantum Field Theory, Lattice Field Theory, Effective Field Theories, and Phenomenology based on the above theoretical tools.

What is an elementary particle simple definition? ›

Britannica Dictionary definition of ELEMENTARY PARTICLE. [count] physics. : a particle (such as an electron or proton) that is smaller than an atom and does not appear to be made up of a combination of more basic things.

What are elementary particles called? ›

A quark is an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter. Quarks combine to form particles called hadrons (the most stable of which are protons and neutrons). Quarks cannot be observed outside of hadrons. There are six types of quarks, known as flavours: up, down, strange, charm, bottom, and top.

What are the 7 characteristics of particles of matter? ›

The particles of matter are very, very small. The particles of matter have space between them. The particles of matter are constantly moving. The particles of matter attract each other.

What is the function of elementary particle? ›

F1 particles are also known as oxysomes or elementary particles or F1-F0 particles. These particles are present in matrix side of mitochondrial inner membrane. In mitochondria, F1 particles function in synthesizes ATP from ADP + Pi. F1 particles comprise about 15% of the total inner membrane protein.

What are the 2 elementary particles? ›

The two most fundamental types of particles are quarks and leptons. The quarks and leptons are divided into 6 flavors corresponding to three generations of matter.

What is the difference between elementary and fundamental particles? ›

The key difference between fundamental particles and elementary particles is that fundamental particles are fundamental constituents of matter whereas elementary particles are the smallest known building blocks of the universe. We often use the names fundamental particles and elementary particles as synonyms.

Why photon is an elementary particle? ›

The photon belongs to the class of bosons. As with other elementary particles, photons are best explained by quantum mechanics and exhibit wave–particle duality, their behavior featuring properties of both waves and particles.

What are the properties of elementary particles? ›

There are three basic properties that describe an elementary particle: 'mass', 'charge', and 'spin'. Each property is assigned a number value.

What are the 6 types of particles? ›

For instance, quarks (which make up the protons and neutrons inside atoms) come in six flavors: up, down, top, bottom, strange and charm. Particles called leptons, a category that includes electrons, also come in six flavors, each with a different mass.

What are elementary particles made of? ›

The Atom Builder Guide to Elementary Particles

Atoms are constructed of two types of elementary particles: electrons and quarks. Electrons occupy a space that surrounds an atom's nucleus. Each electron has an electrical charge of -1. Quarks make up protons and neutrons, which, in turn, make up an atom's nucleus.

Which one is truly elementary particle? ›

A proton is made up of two up quarks and one down quark whereas a neutron is made up of two down quarks and one up quark. Clearly, in the provided options for the given question, leptons are the particles, which are truly elementary.

How elementary particles are classified? ›

Elementary particles are categorized on the basis of their nature and properties. They are classified on the basis of mass, charge, average lifetime, spin, interaction etc.

Does time exist for a photon? ›

From the perspective of a photon, there is no such thing as time. It's emitted, and might exist for hundreds of trillions of years, but for the photon, there's zero time elapsed between when it's emitted and when it's absorbed again.

Is light a photon or a wave? ›

Light can be described both as a wave and as a particle. There are two experiments in particular that have revealed the dual nature of light. When we're thinking of light as being made of of particles, these particles are called “photons”. Photons have no mass, and each one carries a specific amount of energy.

What is inside a photon? ›

A photon is a tiny particle that comprises waves of electromagnetic radiation. As shown by Maxwell, photons are just electric fields traveling through space. Photons have no charge, no resting mass, and travel at the speed of light.


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