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Elementary Particles

The Higgs Boson

white polar bear, mesons, leptons, fundamental particles, complex machines

Studying elementary particles requires specialized equipment, the skill of deduction, and much patience. All of the fundamental particles—leptons, quarks, force-carrying bosons, and the Higgs boson—appear to be “point particles.” A point particle is infinitely small—it exists at a certain point in space without taking up any space. These fundamental particles are therefore impossible to see directly, even with the most powerful microscopes. Instead, scientists must deduce the properties of a particle from the way it affects other objects.

In a way, studying an elementary particle is like tracking a white polar bear in a field of snow: The polar bear may be impossible to see, but you can see the tracks it left in the snow, you can find trees it clawed, and you can find the remains of polar bear meals. You might even smell or hear the polar bear. From these observations, you could determine the position of the polar bear, its speed (from the spacing of the paw prints), and its weight (from the depth of the paw prints). No one can see an elementary particle, but scientists can look at the tracks it leaves in detectors, and they can look at materials with which it has interacted. They can even measure electric and magnetic fields caused by electrically charged particles. From these observations, physicists can deduce the position of an elementary particle, its speed, its weight, and many other properties.

Most particles are extremely unstable, which means they decay into other particles very quickly. Only the proton, neutron, electron, photon, and neutrinos can be detected a significantly long time after they are created. Studying the other particles, such as mesons, the heavier baryons, and the heavier leptons, requires detectors that can take many (250,000 or more) measurements per second. In addition, these heavier particles do not naturally exist on the surface of Earth, so scientists must create them in the laboratory or look to natural laboratories, such as stars and Earth’s atmosphere. Creating these particles requires extremely high amounts of energy.

Particle physicists use large, specialized facilities to measure the effects of elementary particles. In some cases, they use particle accelerators and particle colliders to create the particles to be studied. Particle accelerators are huge devices that use electric and magnetic fields to speed up elementary particles. Particle colliders are chambers in which beams of accelerated elementary particles crash into one another. Scientists can also study elementary particles from outer space, from sources such as the Sun. Physicists use large particle detectors, complex machines with several different instruments, to measure many different properties of elementary particles. Particle traps slow down and isolate particles, allowing direct study of the particles’ properties.

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