Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Why does chemistry work?

This seems to be an odd question to ask in a blog about particle physics. But, as you will see, it actually makes connection to a very deep problem of particle physics. A problem, which I am currently turning my attention to. Hence, in preparation of things to come, I write this blog entry.

So, where is the connection? Well, chemistry is actually all about the electromagnetic interaction. One of the most important features is that atoms are electrically neutral. This is only possible, if the atomic nucleus has the same positive charge as its surrounding electrons have a negative one. The electrons are elementary particles, as far as we know. The atomic nucleus, however, is ultimately made up of quarks. So the last statement boils down to the fact that the total electric charge of the quarks in the nucleus has to compensate the one of the electrons. Sounds simple enough. And this is in fact something which has been established very exactly in experiment. The compensation is much better than one part in a billion - within our best efforts, the cancellation appears perfect.

The problem is that it is not necessary, according to our current knowledge. Quarks and electrons are very different objects in particle physics. So, why should they carry electric charge such that this balancing is possible? The answer to this is, as often: We do not know. Yet.

When we are just looking at electromagnetism, there is actually no theoretical reason why they should have balanced electric charges. Electromagnetism would work in exactly the same way if they did not, if they would have arbitrarily different charges. Of course, atoms are then no longer neutral. And chemistry would then work quite differently.

If there is no simple explanation in the details, one should look at the big picture. Perhaps it helps. In this case it does, but this time not in a very useful way.

Electromagnetism does not stand on its own. It is part of the standard model of particle physics. And here things start to become seriously bizarre.

I am a theorist. Hence, the internal consistency of a theory is something quite important to me. The standard model of particle physics as a theory turns out to be consistent if very precise relations exist between the various particles in it - and the charge they carry. The exact cancellation of electric charges in the atoms we observe is one of the very few possibilities how the standard model can work theoretically.

So, did we explain it now? Unfortunately, no. "The theory should work" is not an adequate requirement for a description of nature. The game goes the other way around. Nature dictates, and our theory must describe it. Experiment rules theory in physics.

So the fact that we need this cancellation is troublesome: We only know that we need it. But it is just there, we cannot explain it with what we know.

So that is the point to enter speculation. We know theories in which the electromagnetic charge cancellation is not 'just there', but it follows immediately from the structure of the theory. The best known examples of such theories are the so-called grand-unified theories. In these, there is a super-force, and the known forces of the standard model are just different facets of this super-force. The fact that electrons and quarks have canceling charges in such a theory just stems from the fact that everything originates in this one super-force.

It is possible to write down a theory of such a super-force, which is compatible with our current experiments. But so is the standard model. Hence, only if we find an experimental result, in which a theory of such a super-force shows a distinct behavior to the standard-model, we can be sure that it exists. This is not (yet?) the case.

At the same time, we so far know relatively little about many aspects of such a theory. This is the reason for me to start getting interested in it. Especially, there are still conceptual questions we need to answer. I will write about them in future entries. Because it will be quite interesting and challenging to understand these things.