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In physics, an elementary particle or fundamental particle is a particle not made up of smaller particles, and so, it can't be broken into anything smaller. Elementary particles are either bosons (if they have a characteristic called spin of -1, 0, or 1) or fermions (if their "spin" is -½ or ½). The Standard Model is the most accepted way to explain how all particles behave, and the forces that affect these particles.
Atoms are not elementary particles because they are made of subatomic particles (particles smaller than an atom) like protons and neutrons. Protons and neutrons are not elementary particles because they are made up of particles even smaller than themselves called quarks, which are joined together by other particles called gluons because they "glue" the quarks together in the atom. Quarks are elementary because quarks cannot be broken down any further.
Properties[change | edit source]
Every elementary particle has at least three important properties: "mass", "charge", and "spin". Each property has a number value. The properties are:
- Mass: A particle has mass if it takes energy to increase (accelerate) how fast it is moving. The table to the right gives the mass of each elementary particle. Special relativity tells us that energy equals mass times a constant, the square of the speed of light. If distance and time are measured so that light travels one unit of distance in one unit of time, then mass equals energy. This is why the masses in the table to the right are given in units of energy over the speed of light squared, MeV/c2 (that is pronounced megaelectronvolts over "c" squared). All particles with mass produce gravity. (Strangely, particles without mass also produce gravity. See general relativity for more information.) Though mass is not always conserved (neither increased nor decreased), mass plus energy is almost always conserved because of the e=mc2 concept.
- Charge: An electron has charge -1. A proton has charge +1. A neutron has an average charge 0. Normal quarks have charge of ⅔ or -⅓. If one particle has a negative charge, and another particle has a positive charge, the two particles are attracted to each other. If the two particles both have negative charge, or both have positive charge, the two particles are pushed apart. At short distances, this force is much stronger than the force of gravity which pulls all particles together. Charge has always been conserved in all measured experiments.
- Spin: The angular momentum or constant turning of a particle has a particular value, called its spin number, which is a natural number (positive whole number) times ½. Spin is always conserved in all reactions that do not involve the weak force. Subatomic particles with "spin" are not spinning in the usual sense, but instead "spin" in quantum physics is a more abstract concept invented by scientists to describe what is really going on with the particle.
Mass and charge are properties we can see in everyday life, because gravity and electricity affect things that humans can see and touch. But spin is affects only the very, very small world of subatomic particles. And so we do not see their effect in our everyday life.
Fermions[change | edit source]
Fermions (named after the scientist Enrico Fermi) have a spin number of -½ or ½, and are either quarks or leptons. There are 12 different types of fermions (not including antimatter. Each type is called a "flavor." The flavors are:
- Quarks: up, down, strange, charm, bottom, top. Quarks come in three pairs, called "generations." One member of each pair has a charge of ⅔. The other member has charge -⅓.
- Leptons: electron, muon, tau, electron neutrino, mu neutrino, tau neutrino. The neutrinos have charge 0, hence the neutr- prefix. The other leptons have charge -1. Each neutrino is named after its corresponding original lepton: the electron, muon, and tauon.
Six of the 12 fermions are thought to last forever: up and down quarks, the electron, and the three kinds of neutrinos (which constantly switch flavor). The other fermions decay. That is, they break down into other particles a fraction of a second after they are created. Fermi-Dirac statistics is a theory that describes how collections of fermions behave. Essentially, you can't have more than one fermion in the same place at the same time.
Bosons[change | edit source]
Bosons (named after the Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974)) have spin numbers that are integers (e.g. -1, 0, 1). Although most bosons are made of more than one particle, there are two kinds of elementary bosons:
- Gauge bosons: gluons, W+ and W- bosons, Z0 bosons, and photons. These bosons carry 3 of the 4 fundamental forces, and have a spin number of 1;
- Higgs boson: Physicists believe that massive particles have mass (that is, they are not pure bundles of energy like photons) because of the Higgs interaction.
The photon and the gluons have no charge, and are the only elementary particles that have a mass of 0 for certain. The photon is the only boson that does not decay. Bose-Einstein statistics is a theory that describes how collections of bosons behave. Unlike fermions, it is possible to have more than one boson in the same space at the same time.
Standard Model[change | edit source]
The Standard Model includes all of the elementary particles described above. All these particles except the Higgs boson have been observed in the laboratory.
The Standard Model does not talk about gravity. If gravity works like the three other fundamental forces, then gravity is carried by the hypothetical boson called the graviton. (The Higgs boson and graviton have yet to be found, and are not included in the table above.)
The first fermion to be discovered, and the one we know the most about, is the electron. The first boson to be discovered, and also the one we know the most about, is the photon. The theory that very accurately explains how the electron, photon, electromagnetism, and electromagnetic radiation all work together is called quantum electrodynamics.