Everything is a particle, but what does that mean?!

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What is a “particle”?

Quantum physics says everything is made of particles, but what does that actually mean?

For Symmetry Magazine:

“Is he a dot or is he a speck? When he’s underwater, does he get wet? Or does the water get him instead? Nobody knows.” —They Might Be Giants, “Particle Man”

We learn in school that matter is made of atoms and that atoms are made of smaller ingredients: protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons and neutrons are made of quarks, but electrons aren’t. As far as we can tell, quarks and electrons are fundamental particles, not built out of anything smaller.

It’s one thing to say everything is made of particles, but what is a particle? And what does it mean to say a particle is “fundamental”? What are particles made of, if they aren’t built out of smaller units? [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]



Some light reading about light

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

As I mentioned before, I’m branching out a bit and writing some listicles for Symmetry Magazine this year. The first covered gravity, and the second covers… light!

Eight things you might not know about light

Light is all around us, but how much do you really know about the photons speeding past you?

For Symmetry Magazine:

1. Photons can produce shock waves in water or air, similar to sonic booms.

Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. However, light slows down in air, water, glass and other materials as photons interact with atoms, which has some interesting consequences.

The highest-energy gamma rays from space hit Earth’s atmosphere moving faster than the speed of light in air. These photons produce shock waves in the air, much like a sonic boom, but the effect is to make more photons instead of sound. Observatories like VERITAS in Arizona look for those secondary photons, which are known as Cherenkov radiation. Nuclear reactors also exhibit Cherenkov light in the water surrounding the nuclear fuel. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine…]

If you shine light on a barrier with two openings, it produces a distinct pattern of light on a distant screen. Measuring that pattern is standard in introductory physics laboratories. (You could even do it at home, but I recommend a very dark room and a bright laser pointer if you hope to see anything at all.) Where things get fun, though, is if you have a light source capable of sending a slow stream of photons — particles of light — through: you still get the interference pattern, but it emerges slowly from individual points of light. In other words, the photons behave as though the entire wave interference pattern is already present, even though they are single particles.

My latest article for Nautilus shows how researchers have taken this classic experiment, but use single photons to manipulate the interference pattern via the phenomenon known as entanglement. The result is a mind-bending experiment known as the “quantum eraser”:

The best way to see the quantum eraser is to couple the double-slit experiment with another fascinating quantum phenomenon: entanglement. In a typical implementation, light from a laser stimulates a certain kind of crystal, which in turn emits two photons with opposite polarization—one could oscillate left-right, while the other oscillates up-down. (You can see how this works by putting one pair of polarized sunglasses in front of another and rotating one pair. At certain angles, the light going through both lenses will fade to almost nothing, a sign that the light is passing through two filters with perpendicular orientations.)

The polarization of each photon is unknown before measurement, but because of how they’re generated, they are entangled, and measuring one can instantly affect each the other. That holds true no matter how far apart the two particles are or when the measurements are taken. [read more….]

Quantum droplets in an ocean of light