What is particle physics all about?

Particle physics is simply the study of the tiniest elements that make up our universe. An ancient Greek philosopher posited that there must be some sort of smallest indivisible unit, a building block that makes up all other matter. He called this the Atomos, which is Greek for indivisible.

Now, our technology has advanced so far that we have proven that the atom exists. We cannot see it directly, but it leaves traces in machines and we can detect those traces. So now we know that atoms exist. But hold on, our technology advanced so far that we figured out that even atoms are further divisible! We still kept the name atoms though, which is kinda weird, but this happens a lot in science and language in general. We might name something that makes sense at the time, but later on we find new information which reveals that it isn’t sensible at all, but we still keep the name. Maybe we are lazy, or maybe our concepts start to lead a life of their own at some point, who knows.

Cutting up the Atom

Anyhew, atoms are further divisible into protons, neutrons and electrons. The protons and neutrons are in the center, which is called the nucleus. Why do they stick together and not fly off into the abyss? This is due to the strong force of nature. This is one of the four forces of nature, including the weak force, gravity and electromagnetism. Check out a future article to learn more on how these forces work.

And then the electron is whizzing about in an orbit around the nucleus. But what is also interesting about this is that it is not a clean elliptical orbit like earth has around the sun. There is something called the Heisenberg uncertainty principle which states that it is mathematically impossible to simultaneously know the position and momentum of electrons or other very tiny things. The best we can do is draw a cloud around a nucleus and say, hey it is 90% certain that it is here, and only 20% that it is there!

I think the reason Walter White in Breaking Bad calls himself Heisenberg is because of this uncertainty principle. He is like, ohh look at me, am I a high school teacher or a drug dealer? It is so uncertain!

Anyway, that was a bit of a sidetrack. One final thing I would like to note is that even protons, and neutrons are made out of smaller elements called quarks. Quarks always come in triplets and cannot ever be separated!

Time for Some Philosophy

But now an interesting philosophical question arises. First, we thought atoms were indivisible, then we figured out we could slice it into smaller components. Then, these subatomic particles could even be divided into quarks. Have we reached a bedrock here, or does it go further down? What do you think? Is it particles all the way down, or is there a bottom with a fundamental building block? It’s funny, this question was basically asked by Greek philosophers 2500 years ago, and we still don’t have the answer.

Further Reading

Check out this article on the forces of nature.

And take a look at:




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  1. Pingback: The Four Fundamental Forces of Nature - Polymath University

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