Explainer: Standard Model of Particle Physics

Please login to favourite this article.

The standard model helps scientists describe the universe, but it’s not perfect.

Use this explainer with Physics and Chemistry students to help them understand the particles and forces that make up everything we know.

Word Count / Video Length: 1076 / 0:39 mins / 5:02 mins

Theoretical physics strives towards a (beautiful) description of everything. Credit: Jinx!

The “traditional” beauty of theoretical physics is its equations. If we want to describe something, or the way something behaves, we can write down a relation between some properties we think that thing will obey.

The simplicity and symmetry of these equations – to someone who understands them – is amazingly beautiful.

Given the mass of a ball, the height, angle, and strength with which it is thrown, physics will tell you the path the ball with take through the air, how long it will be in the air for, and how far away and how hard it will hit the ground.

Physics can fully describe this system with just a few simple properties.

But what if you want to describe the ball itself? We could say it’s red, but what does that really mean? To describe colour you need to consider the light being reflected from the ball.

You could say the ball’s made of plastic, but you need to describe the molecules, then the atoms they’re made of, then the subatomic particles they’re made of, and so on …

What theoretical physics strives towards is a description of everything, all in one place. The ultimate goal would be a “Theory of Everything” or a “Grand Unified Theory” but, as far as we can tell so far, gravity doesn’t behave in a way that would fit such a theory.

For everything in the entire universe besides gravity, we have the “Standard Model of Particle Physics”, which describes every particle we know about and how these particles interact together via the remaining forces:

  • Electromagnetism (responsible for light, electricity, magnets).
  • The strong nuclear force (responsible for holding everything together).
  • The weak nuclear force (responsible for radioactivity).

As far as the basic building blocks of matter go, we have two categories in the Standard Model: fermions and bosons.

All of the matter that makes up your body consists of just three fermions: two quarks and an electron.

There are six types of quarks in the Standard Model – given the names “up”, “down”, “strange”, “charm”, “bottom” and “top”, in order of increasing mass – but of these only the two lightest (up and down) are used to make protons and neutrons.

Put some protons and neutrons together with some electrons and you have atoms. Put some atoms together and you have matter.

Bosons help other particles “communicate”, and this communication is what we call a force.

When two electrons repel each other, they exchange photons – the particles responsible for light – and we call this exchange the electromagnetic force.

Because photons are massless, they can travel a long way from the particle that emitted them.

There are similar bosons that particles use to communicate the other forces – the exchange of heavy W and Z bosons is what we call the weak force (given that the W and Z are “heavy”, the range of the weak force is small), and the exchange of massless gluons is what we call the strong force.

Confused yet? It won’t help that the W bosons have an electric charge, so they also communicate with photons. Stranger still, the gluons have another charge called “colour” which means they can communicate with themselves.

So now we have all we need to construct matter: some fermions and some bosons. We just need to write an equation that describes everything written above in a simple, symmetrical way.

And here it is:

Makes sense, right?

Just as we can calculate the path of a ball through the air with a few pieces of information, the parameters in the above equation ensure the dynamics of theoretical particles match what we see in the real world.

To theoretical physicists, the above equation is beautiful, elegant, compact, and exhibits lots of the symmetries we expect to see in nature. So what’s wrong with it?

It’s not that it has a lot of terms – it needs to describe how each of the particles interacts with all the others. It’s that it needs more information.

There’s a mathematician’s quote about having too many parameters in a model:

“With four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk”.

The Standard Model has 19 parameters which we fit experiments: most of the fermion masses, and factors that determine the way certain groups interact.

Having so many parameters takes away some of the beauty of the Standard Model – a full theory shouldn’t need additional information.

One set of parameters that the Standard Model doesn’t require is the mass of neutrinos (fermions) as it predicts they are massless.

Experimentally, this is not true and, moreover, the fact they can change type of neutrino (which they have been shown to do) isn’t allowed if they are massless.

Neutrinos have other properties, too, and one of these is the way that they behave, which we call “left-handed” and “right-handed”.

Experimentally, the W bosons only interact with left-handed neutrinos, while the Standard Model predicts this interaction should be symmetric – in other words, the poor right-handed neutrinos shouldn’t miss out.

Every particle in the Standard Model has now been detected, with the final piece of the puzzle, the elusive Higgs boson, finally detected in 2012.

In the Standard Model, the Higgs boson is responsible for explaining the masses of the heavy fermions and bosons.

Experiments at the Large Hadron Collider searched for the Higgs before finally detecting the new particle. This Higgs boson was the simplest form theorised and still required further work to prove it was the Higgs boson predicted by the Standard Model.

There are also some features that physicists consider to be missing from the Standard Model (apart from gravity). The biggest of these is the lack of room for dark matter particles.

Such shortcomings lead some people to call the Standard Model a “Theory of Almost Everything”.

So what’s the next option?

“Beyond the Standard Model” physics covers options such as supersymmetry – in which there are copies of all the particles but where fermions and bosons are swapped – and string theory – an attempt to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity.

These go some way towards rectifying some issues that the Standard Model faces, but, at present, tend to introduce further inconsistencies.

For now, it’s probably best to trust that nature has a remarkable way of keeping track of what’s going on at the tiniest scales, and be happy that it’s easy to understand how bigger objects – such as red balls – behave.

The Conversation

Written by Jonathan Carroll, Post Doctoral Research Associate at the Centre for the Subatomic Structure of Matter.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Login or Sign up for FREE to download a copy of the full teacher resource

Years: 9, 11, 12


Physical Sciences – Forces, Energy

Additional: Careers, Technology.

Concepts (South Australia):

Physical Sciences – Forces and Motion, Energy


9 & 11-12
Learning Connections

Student Skill Summary

Australian Curriculum Connections - Version 8.4

Sub StrandYear LevelKey IdeaConcept - ACConcept - SAContent TopicContent CodeContent Descriptor
Chemical Sciences9Matter and energy | Scale and measurementProperties and Structure of MatterProperties of MatterStructure and Decay of AtomsACSSU177All matter is made of atoms that are composed of protons, neutrons and electrons; natural radioactivity arises from the decay of nuclei in atoms 
Physical Sciences9Matter and energy | Form and functionForms and Transfers of EnergyEnergyEnergy Movement and WavesACSSU182Energy transfer through different mediums can be explained using wave and particle models 
Sub StrandYear LevelContent TopicContent CodeContent Descriptor
Nature and Development of Science9Refinement of Scientific Understanding, Models and Theories EvolvesACSHE157Scientific understanding, including models and theories, is contestable and is refined over time through a process of review by the scientific community
9Advancements in Scientific Understanding Rely on Technological AdvancementsACSHE158Advances in scientific understanding often rely on technological advances and are often linked to scientific discoveries