Thursday, January 12, 2012

Fermions

You thought bosons were strange? Well, wait, now comes the really strange quantum stuff - fermions.

At first sight, fermions are innocently looking and differing from bosons by the fact that they have half-integer spin. In the standard model, all quarks and leptons are fermions, and have spin one half. No elementary particle is known (though some hypothesized) which are fermions and have a larger spin than one half. But again, some particles made up from several elementary particles may look from afar like having a larger half-integer spin. E.g. the Delta, a heavier cousin of the proton and made up also from three quarks, has spin three halves.

In contrast to bosons, fermions dislike being at the same place. In fact, they can never take the same position, much like the classical balls. But there is a difference to the classical balls. For fermions, this not only applies to position, but also to all quantum numbers and energies. As a consequence, there can never be two fermions being having the same energy. This is the famous Pauli exclusion principle.

This principle has very fundamental consequences: It is responsible for the stability of all matter. If your desk would be made out of bosons, only electromagnetic repulsion would prevent it from collapsing to a pile of bosons. But because it is made out of fermions - all the quarks and electrons - it could never collapse to a single point. Because the fermions can just not get so near to each other. That is the fundamental reason which prevents a white dwarf or a neutron star from collapsing.

Very similar, it also prevents the electrons in an atom, which are attracted by the nucleus by electric forces, from collapsing into the lowest energy level, or into the nucleus outright. All of chemistry works the way it works because the electrons, since they are fermions, cannot all go into the lowest energy level. Otherwise, our chemistry, and thus our biology, would be very different, indeed.

But this is not the only strange thing about fermions. Fermions are also very strange in many other respects. As a consequence of the Pauli principle they obey again a different statistics, the so-called Fermi-Dirac statistics. The consequence of this are at the heart of why there are electric insulators.

But fermions are also strange in the sense that when you turn your coordinate system by 360 degrees, i.e. once fully around, everything is unchanged. Only the fermions do not play along: You have to turn your coordinate system twice around so that they look again the same (or, more precisely, their wave-function explained next time, looks the same). That is so mind-boggling that it is hard to believe it is true, and one cannot really intuitively understand this. It is a very deep combination of our space-time structure and quantum physics. There is no classical objects which behaves like this.

The mathematical consequences of these properties are little less strange. Fermions are the only objects which we cannot describe by ordinary numbers. Theoretical physicists had to invent a whole new type of numbers (well, actually borrow them from your friendly mathematician next door) to describe fermions - so-called Grassmann numbers. These are really strange. If you multiply an ordinary number with itself, you get a new number. If you multiply a Grassmann number with itself, you always get zero. That is the mathematical realization of the Pauli principle. This feature makes fermions very hard to handle in actual calculations, and they have been a bane especially to numerical simulations.

Nonetheless, they are there, and we are bound to live with them, as we are bound to live with bosons. Though - you can always combine two fermions to make something which looks from afar like a boson. But you can never combine two bosons such that they look from afar like a fermion. This fact has been found to be exploited very often by nature, as already described last time. And it lies at the heart of some ideas, so-called technicolor scenarios, to get rid of the Higgs with all its annoying properties: In such proposed extensions of the standard model, the Higgs is just a combinations of two new particles, so-called techniquarks.