Misbehaving particles

Particle Accelerator
Courtesy of CERN

Have you heard of the standard model of particle physics? Recently, research may have found some new cracks in it. What is this model, and why does this matter?

Particles galore

You probably know about elemental particles. Protons, electrons, neutrons, right? Nope, not quite. There are actually 17 elemental particles, and protons and neutrons are not in there.

If you use giant magnetic tube to accelerate particles and then smash them together (like the Large Hadron Collider) it turns out proton and neutrons actually break apart into different smaller particles. And it turns out things like gravity and magnetism are facilitated by even more different particles.

This leads to the following set of elementary particles:

On the left are what you would traditionally think of as ‘matter’, while on the right are ‘force carriers’. Such a force carrier is gravity, for example, carried by a specific type of boson. The observant reader will now ask: wait, does that mean gravity travels at a certain speed? And the answer is ‘yes’, and ‘gravity waves’ are also a thing.

In everyday life this doesn’t matter that much, of course. I personally never sit around thinking about how up and down quarks fit together… well, not often anyway.

However, particle physics does have practical applications. Fission reactors and fusion reactors came out of that field, as did quantum computers. The reactors might power our greener future, while quantum computers might change the nature of internet encryption.

It’s wrong

The problem with the above model is that it isn’t complete, and maybe even wrong. You see, it cannot explain some things we can see in nature.

Something is making the universe expand faster than the model says. Something is also structuring galaxies in a way this model cannot explain, leading to a hunt for a ‘dark matter’ particle. Then there is the problem of incorporating gravity into the model in a way that does justice to the theory of relativity. And finally, a pretty big one: the universe is mostly made up of matter, while there is a lot less anti-matter. We experience this daily, as we are not annihilated by anti-matter. The standard model can’t explain this imbalance.

Recently, another problem emerged. Muons are not behaving as they should. The results are not definitive, but increasingly, cracks are forming. This is not a problem for physicists, but actually very exciting.

The thing is: we know the standard model is wrong, but we can’t find a replacement, and the cracks are not big enough to find alternatives. You may remember my article about falsifiability, and that applies here. There are some alternative theories, but not enough clear data to prove them right or wrong.

Einstein and Newton

Physics was in this pickle before, although attitudes were different. At the end of the 19th century a lot of scientists thought physics was ‘done’ and there were only some details to figure out. Then Einstein came along and kicked over the table on that one.

You see, up to that point Newtonian physics was all the rage. As it turned out, though, Newtonian mechanics are only an approximation of how things work at low speeds. Once you start to reach near-light speeds, it breaks down. That doesn’t make Newton’s theory wrong or useless, far from it. But Einstein paved the way for nuclear reactors and quantum computers — and unfortunately atom bombs and hydrogen bombs.


All in all, cracking the standard model could open up a range of new possibilities. Perhaps even faster computers, or stranger things like faster-than-light travel, or a way to communicate with parallel universes.

Now, as a sci-fi writer I’m jumping the gun here, of course, but it’s fun to wonder where the future might lead.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands