As a member of the Ask-A-Scientist panel fielding
questions on Materials Science and Engineering, it is now my turn to
ask a question! My question related to Beta Decay of an atomic
nucleus. In Beta Decay, a neutron spontaneously decays to a proton,
while emitting an electron and an electron antineutrino. Looking
inside the neutron, one of the neutron's Down Quarks changes to an
Up Quark (thus changing the neutron to a proton), and in the process
emits the electron and electron antineutrino. The question is, where
did the electron and electron antineutrino come from?! Quarks,
electrons and electron antineutrinos are all fundamental particles,
and cannot be broken down further. There are no electrons, for
example, hiding in a neutron... only 2 Down Quarks and an Up Quark.
How is it possible for a Down Quark (in the process of changing to
an Up Quark), to emit two fundamental particles (the electron and
the electron antineutrino) that were not in the nucleus in the first
place, and which cannot by definition be created from other
particles? Thanks for any light you can shed on this.
I too have (am) grappling with the arcane "problems" of "fundamental"
particles. There is one assumption in your well stated inquiry that I am
not sure is known to be true or not true. Specifically, "Quarks, electrons
and electron antineutrinos are all fundamental particles, and cannot be
broken down further." True at the energies investigated as of now, but maybe
they have not been slammed hard enough yet. My search has not been from lack
of trying. The best I can do is offer my "reading list" on high energy
"Facts and Mysteries in Elementary Particle Physics" by Martinus
"Supersymmetry" by Gordon Kane;
"The Trouble with Physics" by Lee Smolin;
and (not yet read, and published in 1994), so it may make it somewhat
dated "The Quark and the Jaguar" by Murray Gell-Mann.
Lee Smolin, especially,
is critical of the current state of theoretical high energy physics -- and he
certainly has the credentials to be critical and credible. What all these books
for lay persons have in common is trying to "translate" the conclusions of
difficult mathematics into verbal language. The difficulty is that there is no
good Math-to-Language --Language-to-Math "dictionary". The only "reality"
appears to be in the mathematics which is inaccessible to all but a relatively
few very smart specialists. Wish I could answer your question.
I might be able to help in one aspect of your question. Your question seems
to imply that there is absolute conservation of fundamental particles -- if
so, then this might be where you are getting confused. Fundamental particles
are not necessarily conserved; particles can "appear" and "disappear". More
precisely stated, matter can emerge from vacuum given correct energy and
conservation rules. The electron and anti-neutrino exist in this instance
because they fulfill the energy and conservation rules.
I am far from an expert in this field (pun intended), so I will defer to
another volunteer to explain the full exchange of particles and conserved
properties involved in the weak force (and beta decay). You may benefit from
reading about leptons, W and Z bosons and, more generally, the Weak Force.
If you like matrix math, this will be very fun for you. :)
> Thanks for any light you can shed on this.
Nice pun by you, too!
Hope this helps,
p.s. special thanks to HLM for helping me formulate this response.
Fundamental does not mean 'immutable' - it just means we cannot detect
constituents or sub-components. Merely because these particles exchange with
energy doesn't make them any less fundamental. Or, if you define fundamental
as 'immutable' (e.g. cannot exchange with energy), then no form of matter is
fundamental. These particles are still fundamental according to the standard
If you want to go outside the standard model, e.g. with string theory, then
there is a whole new vocabulary. However, the experimental underpinnings of
string theory are ... well, nearly non-existent. So while it is interesting
on a theoretical basis, it is far from having the combined theoretical and
experimental support that the standard model has. Not passing judgment, just
noting that string theory is still in its early development.
Last, the comment on 'illogical'. Something that engineers struggle with in
theoretical physics is their 'intuition'. These things just do not work the
way we expect. It is not illogical -- quite the opposite in fact. It is
supremely logical and mathematically driven and experimentally verified. It
is, however, extremely 'counter-intuitive'. Just speaking personally, when I
gave up on trying to understand these things intuitively, and just
understanding how they *are*, it really helped me. I share this because
maybe this realization I came to might help you too.
This is lot of fun too... hope you're enjoying your study as I do!
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Update: June 2012