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Higgs Force: Zen and the Art of Quark Dynamics

Originally devised in the distant past of ancient China, the board game go arrived in Japan along with Buddhism in the 9th century. And it is in Japan that playing go has been refined into an art form. Go provides a great example of how very simple rules can provide a basis for very complex behaviour. Although the rules governing each individual move are so simple, play rapidly becomes very involved as the stones combine to form complicated patterns on the board.

The quest to understand the structure of the atomic nucleus would lead to the discoveries of multitudes of new particles. We now know that beneath this confusing array of particles there lies great simplicity. The apparent complexity has its origin in some very simple fundamental laws of Nature.

Higgs Force by Nicholas Mee

The nucleus of an atom is a collection of protons and neutrons. The protons are positively charged and the neutrons are uncharged. This means that there must be a very strong electromagnetic repulsion between the protons that is threatening to blast the nucleus apart. The only way that the stability of the nucleus can be understood is if there is a force that is holding the protons and the neutrons together that is much stronger than this electromagnetic repulsion. This incredibly powerful force is known simply as the strong force.

The principle architect of our understanding of the strong force and its role in the structure of matter was a physicist from New York called Murray Gell-Mann. A child prodigy who had entered Yale University in 1945 at the age of just fifteen, Gell-Mann was a great lover of the diversity of nature with an extremely wide range of passions from bird-watching to archaeology to linguistics and the arts. For a twenty year period from the early 1950s Gell-Mann led the way in elucidating the structure of matter and the mechanism behind the strong interaction that holds matter together.

Higgs Force by Nicholas Mee Higgs Force by Nicholas Mee

Like a great go master, Gell-Mann carefully placed his stones on the board to find profound new patterns and the mysterious strong force began to reveal its secrets. Gell-Mann romantically described his scheme as ‘The Eightfold Way’, taking the name from the Buddhist path to enlightenment. He recognised the parallels with his 19th century predecessor Mendeleyev who had taken the patterns in the properties of the chemical elements and used them to organise the elements into his Periodic Table of the Elements. Mendeleyev’s discoveries led the way towards the understanding of the structure of the atom and an explanation of chemistry in terms of the properties of atoms. Gell-Mann was now undertaking an equivalent task, but at an even more fundamental level. He was aiming to discover the key to the structure of nuclear matter. Gell-Mann’s scheme implied the existence of a number of new particles. With each discovery of a missing particle the evidence for Gell-Mann’s method of organising the particles was bolstered.

Higgs Force by Nicholas Mee

The Eightfold Way patterns were a powerful clue that there was a deeper substructure to the particles that interact via the strong force. Gell-Mann named the hypothetical subcomponents ‘quarks’. He envisaged three different types of quark: the up quark, the down quark and the strange quark. Gell-Mann proposed that the proton is composed of two up quarks and a down quark, whereas the neutron is formed of two down quarks and an up quark. But no-one had ever seen an isolated quark.

Higgs Force by Nicholas Mee
Higgs Force by Nicholas Mee
Higgs Force by Nicholas Mee

It would be at least another decade before the physical existence of quarks was widely recognised. Only with the development of a theory to describe the force between quarks would the reality of quarks become accepted by the physics community. This force is known as the colour force and the theory that describes this force is called quantum chromodynamics or QCD. We now know that it explains the working of the strong force very accurately indeed.

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