Fundamental Theories in Physics

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A scientific theory often seeks to synthesize a body of evidence or observations of particular phenomena. It's generally — though by no means always — a grander, testable statement about how nature operates.

You can't necessarily reduce a scientific theory to a pithy statement or equation, but it does represent something fundamental about how nature works. Both laws and theories depend on basic elements of the scientific method, such as generating a hypothesis, testing that premise, finding or not finding empirical evidence and coming up with conclusions.

Eventually, other scientists must be able to replicate the results if the experiment is destined to become the basis for a widely accepted law or theory.

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Series: Fundamental theories of physics

Daniel Freedman, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sergio Ferrara, now at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen of Stony Brook University collaborated on this approach to resolving the apparent conflicts between the two most fundamental theories of physics: quantum mechanics, which describes the microscopic world of atoms and particles, and general relativity, which describes the force of gravity and its influence on cosmic scales. Supergravity was born from the quest to find simplicity and unity among the particles and forces of nature.

All known particles are encompassed within the theoretical framework known as the Standard Model of particle physics, which was completed in with the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider LHC at CERN, the European particle-physics center near Geneva. All particles possess a quantum mechanical property called spin, which, for bosons, has an integer value 0, 1, 2, and so on.


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Bosons include photons, the particles of light and the force carriers of electromagnetism, and gluons, the particles that convey the strong force. Fermions include electrons and the quarks that are the constituents of protons and neutrons in atomic nuclei.

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But the Standard Model does not embrace the fourth fundamental force: gravity. Even so, it has long been agreed that gravity should have a corresponding boson called the graviton, which would possess a spin of 2. The observation of gravitational waves in which was also rewarded with a Breakthrough Prize, as well as a Nobel essentially confirmed this picture, Ferrara says.

In the early s several researchers independently proposed that bosons and fermions might be related to one another via a fundamental symmetry called supersymmetry.

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In Freedman realized that supersymmetry could be extended to include gravity. He and van Nieuwenhuizen, working at Stony Brook, began pooling their expertise to think about the problem.

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When he returned to the U. In the midth century James Clerk Maxwell formulated the first field theory in his theory of electromagnetism. Then, in the early part of the 20th century, Albert Einstein developed general relativity , a field theory of gravitation. Later, Einstein and others attempted to construct a unified field theory in which electromagnetism and gravity would emerge as different aspects of a single fundamental field.

They failed, and to this day gravity remains beyond attempts at a unified field theory.

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At subatomic distances, fields are described by quantum field theories, which apply the ideas of quantum mechanics to the fundamental field. In the s quantum electrodynamics QED , the quantum field theory of electromagnetism, became fully developed. The quarks are always bound together within larger observable particles, such as protons and neutrons. They are bound by the short-range strong force, which overwhelms electromagnetism at subnuclear distances.


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However, quarks and leptons both experience a second nuclear force , the weak force. This force, which is responsible for certain types of radioactivity classed together as beta decay , is feeble in comparison with electromagnetism.

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At the same time that the picture of quarks and leptons began to crystallize, major advances led to the possibility of developing a unified theory. Theorists began to invoke the concept of local gauge invariance, which postulates symmetries of the basic field equations at each point in space and time see gauge theory. Both electromagnetism and general relativity already involved such symmetries, but the important step was the discovery that a gauge-invariant quantum field theory of the weak force had to include an additional interaction—namely, the electromagnetic interaction.

During the s a similar quantum field theory for the strong force, called quantum chromodynamics QCD , was developed. In QCD, quarks interact through the exchange of particles called gluons.

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