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Making matter from light – ultra energies and unification of forces

E = mc²

The Holy Grail of modern physics is a so-called theory of everything, a unified field theory, a theory which unifies all known “forces.” That is, unifies all the fundamental interactions of nature. The three “quantum” interactions (electromagnetism, weak, strong) and gravitation.

A conventional sequence of theories depicts final unification as occurring at the Planck energy (density) level.

electroweak unification occurs at around 100 GeV, grand unification is predicted to occur at 10^16 GeV, and unification of the GUT force with gravity is expected at the Planck energy, roughly 10^19 GeV.

Electroweak unification is a broken symmetry: the electromagnetic and weak forces appear distinct at low energies because the particles carrying the weak force, the W and Z bosons, have non-zero masses of 80.4 GeV/c2 and 91.2 GeV/c2, whereas the photon, which carries the electromagnetic force, is massless. At higher energies Ws and Zs can be created easily and the unified nature [symmetry?] of the force becomes apparent.

A recent Symmetry Magazine article (below) was inspiration for this post. I’ve encountered the topic – unification of forces at high enough energies – many times before. But this latest article, while an experimental milestone, struck me as quite particle oriented, not helping advance visualization based on quantum field theory (QFT).[1]

The premise of Grand Unified Theory models is merging of gauge interactions at extreme energies, energy densities possibly in the quite early universe.

A Grand Unified Theory (GUT) is a model in particle physics in which, at high energies, the three gauge interactions of the Standard Model comprising the electromagnetic, weak, and strong forces are merged into a single force. Although this unified force has not been directly observed, the many GUT models theorize its existence. If unification of these three interactions is possible, it raises the possibility that there was a grand unification epoch in the very early universe in which these three fundamental interactions were not yet distinct.

I like to imagine that at high enough energies, all localized vibrations – excitations in the various fields associated with “particles” – become a mash-up of energy transformations. Where direct vs. conventional mediated interactions alter hallmark designations. Unfettered field interactions.[2]

• Symmetry Magazine (A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication) > “LHC creates matter from light” by Sarah Charley (August 24, 2020) – Scientists on an experiment at the Large Hadron Collider see massive W particles emerging from collisions with electromagnetic fields. How can this happen?

The Large Hadron Collider plays with Albert Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc², to transform matter into energy and then back into different forms of matter. But on rare occasions, it can skip the first step and collide pure energy—in the form of electromagnetic waves.

Last year, the ATLAS experiment at the LHC observed two photons, particles of light, ricocheting off one another and producing two new photons. This year, they’ve taken that research a step further and discovered photons merging and transforming into something even more interesting: W bosons, particles that carry the weak force, which governs nuclear decay.

This research doesn’t just illustrate the central concept governing processes inside the LHC: that energy and matter are two sides of the same coin. It also confirms that at high enough energies, forces that seem separate in our everyday lives – electromagnetism and the weak force – are united.

If you try to replicate this photon-colliding experiment at home by crossing the beams of two laser pointers, you won’t be able to create new, massive particles. Instead, you’ll see the two beams combine to form an even brighter beam of light.

“If you go back and look at Maxwell’s equations for classical electromagnetism, you’ll see that two colliding waves sum up to a bigger wave,” says Simone Pagan Griso, a researcher at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “We only see these two phenomena recently observed by ATLAS when we put together Maxwell’s equations with special relativity and quantum mechanics in the so-called theory of quantum electrodynamics.”

Inside CERN’s accelerator complex, protons are accelerated close to the speed of light. Their normally rounded forms squish along the direction of motion as special relativity supersedes the classical laws of motion for processes taking place at the LHC. The two incoming protons see each other as compressed pancakes accompanied by an equally squeezed electromagnetic field (protons are charged, and all charged particles have an electromagnetic field). The energy of the LHC combined with the length contraction boosts the strength of the protons’ electromagnetic fields by a factor of 7500.

When two protons graze each other, their squished electromagnetic fields intersect. These fields skip the classical “amplify” etiquette that applies at low energies and instead follow the rules outlined by quantum electrodynamics. Through these new laws, the two fields can merge and become the “E” in E=mc².

The LHC is one of the few places on Earth that can produce and collide energetic photons, and it’s the only place where scientists have seen two energetic photons merging and transforming into massive W bosons.

Just as photons carry the electromagnetic force, the W and Z bosons carry the weak force. The reason photons can collide and produce W bosons in the LHC is that at the highest energies, those forces combine to make the electroweak force.


[1] And as to whether current QFT is incomplete – only a mathematical model of effective field theories. And the question as to whether unification requires additional dimensions and/or fields and interactions. Wiki notes:

Yet GUTs [Grand Unified Theories] are clearly not the final answer; both the current standard model and all proposed GUTs are quantum field theories which require the problematic technique of renormalization to yield sensible answers. This is usually regarded as a sign that these are only effective field theories, omitting crucial phenomena relevant only at very high energies.

Is there a limit to probing those energies?

• YouTube > Sabine Hossenfelder > “Does nature have a minimal length?” (Feb 2, 2020)

The Planck length seems to be setting a limit to how small a structure can be so that we can still measure it. That’s because to measure small structures, we need to compress more energy into small volumes of space. That’s basically what we do with particle accelerators. Higher energy allows us to find out what happens on shorter distances. But if you stuff too much energy into a small volume, you will make a black hole.

[2] As Wiki notes, extreme energy GUT models characterize such a state by a single unified coupling constant with yet several (so-called) force carriers. That is, in such a state, “particles” (excited fields) experience a single interaction strength while still mediated separately?

GUT models predict that at even higher energy, the strong interaction and the electroweak interaction will unify into a single electronuclear interaction. This interaction is characterized by one larger gauge symmetry and thus several force carriers, but one unified coupling constant.

[3] Sometimes the tone of theories of everything strikes me as casting perfection onto the universe akin to that of ancient celestial spheres. A mathematical perfection or symmetry. Yet the universe need not play by any such vision. Perfection a quixotic quest.

5 thoughts on “Making matter from light – ultra energies and unification of forces

  1. “The LHC is often referred to as the most complex machine ever built.” But the LHC poses “a challenging radiation environment” as well. Is there a fail-safe?

    • Symmetry Magazine > “Parking the LHC proton train” by Zack Savitsky (Sept 17, 2020) – Particle accelerators like the LHC require intricate beam dump systems to safely dispose of high-energy particles after each run.

    While each individual proton [going around the LHC’s 17-mile track] has the kinetic energy of a flying mosquito, the whole proton beam – a collection of 2500 bunches of particles – has as much energy as a 10-carriage railway train traveling 200 mph.

    The proton train must be parked outside the LHC about three times a day. Sometimes that’s because the circulating particles have lost too much energy to produce good collisions. Other times it’s due to an electrical malfunction in the machine. For either case, scientists and engineers have designed a system that immediately diverts the beam to its own train station: the beam dump [which “needs to be the most reliable system in the whole collider” and diverts the beam “in under 90 microseconds – within one rotation around the LHC”].

    The beam dump is a solid graphite cylinder 8 meters long and under a meter in diameter. It’s wrapped in a stainless-steel case, filled with nitrogen gas, and surrounded by iron and concrete shielding.

  2. • YouTube > Fermilab > Don Lincoln > “20 Subatomic Stories: Is the Planck length really the smallest?” (Aug 19, 2020)

    Description: A reasonable question of physics is if there is a smallest possible size and shortest duration and some scientists have claimed that there is and they are called the Planck length and Planck time. In this episode of Subatomic Stories, Fermilab’s Dr. Don Lincoln explains the truth of the Planck constants. It’s not what you think.

    History of so-called “natural units” … vs. smallest possible units … limits of quantum theories – scale where current physics fails …

    (from transcript) It is often said by non-cautious people that the Planck length is the smallest length, the Planck time is the shortest time, and the Planck energy is the highest energy. But that’s not really true.

    the lore has morphed from Planck units being natural units, to being the smallest possible things. How did that happen and is it true? That story stars in 1959 with Alden Mead, who was a chemist at the University of Minnesota. He had an idea connecting gravity and the smallest length. His idea wasn’t popular, and it took him five years of arguing with journal referees, when in 1964 he published his paper entitled “Possible Connection Between Gravitation and Fundamental Length.”

    So, what does Mead’s work really mean? It doesn’t say that the Planck length is the smallest possible length. What it says is that at the Planck length, the effect due to gravity is large enough that it can no longer be ignored. What he says is that, at the Planck length, the laws of physics as we know them totally fail and have to be replaced by something better. Perhaps that something will allow for shorter distances. We don’t know. We need a theory of quantum gravity for that, which I talked a bit about in episode 13.

    The bottom line is that the Planck length is >>NOT<< necessarily the shortest length, but it is a length at which existing physics >>HAS<< to fail and needs to be replaced with something better. So, it's an important size, but it may not be the smallest size.

  3. E = mc²

    Converting energy to matter always produces matter and anti-matter in equal quantities.

    • YouTube > Fermilab > Don Lincoln > “24 Subatomic Stories: Where’s all the antimatter?” (Sept 16, 2020)

    (from transcript) So first is the equation E equals m c squared. To start out, it’s an equation, with a right side and a left side, connected by an equals sign. The c-squared is just a constant number so, ignoring that, the equation says that energy equals mass and vice versa. People routinely say that this means that energy can be converted into matter and back again, and that’s true to a degree, but only partly so. Actually, when you convert energy, you convert it into equal amounts of matter and antimatter. Convert a photon, and you make an electron and antimatter electron, or quark and antiquark. That’s how it works, and it’s true for all kinds of energy. It’s also true that the two are always equal. The matter and antimatter are in identical amounts. That’s an experimental fact that scientists have confirmed again and again. Equal.

  4. Positrons from photons
    Image of self-organized photon collider driven by an intense laser pulse propagating in a plasma. Credit: Yasuhiko Sentoku

    As noted above: “If you try to replicate this [LHC] photon-colliding experiment at home by crossing the beams of two laser pointers, you won’t be able to create new, massive particles. Instead, you’ll see the two beams combine to form an even brighter beam of light.”

    So, do photons interact with each other? Can “matter” be created directly from the photon (electromagnetic) field? Evidently only at extreme photon energies and densities. Like in pulsars.

    The first step to achieving laboratory photon–photon “collision” is to do the math, simulate the conditions.

    • > “Let there be matter: Simulating the creation of matter from photon–photon collisions” by Osaka University (August 10, 2023) – A team led by researchers at Osaka University has simulated conditions that enable photon–photon collisions, solely by using lasers.

    “Our simulations demonstrate that, when interacting with the intense electromagnetic fields of the laser, dense plasma can self-organize to form a photon–photon collider,” explains Dr. Sugimoto, lead author of the study. “This collider contains a dense population of gamma rays, ten times denser than the density of electrons in the plasma and whose energy is a million times greater than the energy of the photons in the laser.”

    Photon–photon collisions in the collider produce electron–positron pairs, and the positrons are accelerated by a plasma electric field created by the laser. This results in a positron beam.

  5. Radio-frequency photon field interactions and time reflections …

    The article below is NOT about two-photon physics as in matter creation (image).

    Photon-photon scattering
    Wiki > A Feynman diagram for photon–photon scattering: one photon scatters from the transient vacuum charge fluctuations of the other.

    From quantum electrodynamics it can be found that photons cannot couple directly to each other and a fermionic field according to the Landau-Yang theorem since they carry no charge and … a photon can, within the bounds of the uncertainty principle, fluctuate into a virtual charged fermion–antifermion pair, to either of which the other photon can couple.

    See also: Wiki > Matter creation > Photon pair production

    The article IS about shaping electromagnetic pulses (of radio frequencies) … an interesting perspective on interactions in the photon (EM) field.

    So, how do researchers manipulate photons so that they can “collide” – interacte in new ways?

    What’s a time reflection? (Temporal re-ordering: the wave’s “trailing edge prior to reflection is now at the front. … the reflected wave maintains its shape but is stretched out in time.”)

    How do you engineer a material with time variations of their electromagnetic properties?

    Well, by sending broadband signals (wavepackets) into a strip of metal filled with (super fast) electronic switches that are connected to reservoir capacitors – controlling impedance (effectively the refractive index) along the strip. “This causes a portion of that wave to reverse and its frequency transforms into another one.”

    In this case, the two microwave photons are (apparently) “a signal consisting of two unequally strong peaks.”

    • > “No longer ships passing in the night: These electromagnetic waves had head-on collisions” by CUNY Advanced Science Research Center (August 14, 2023) – Typically, when two electromagnetic waves cross paths, they move right through each other without interacting.

    While photons would be expected to go through each other without any interaction, by triggering a time interface the scientists were able to demonstrate strong photon-photon interactions and control the nature of the collision.

    “This newest work shows that we can use abrupt temporal changes in tailored metamaterials – known as time interfaces – to make waves collide as if they were massive objects. We were also able to control whether the waves exchanged, gained or lost energy during these collisions.” [Andrea Alù, Distinguished Professor and Einstein Professor of Physics at The City University of New York Graduate Center and founding director of the CUNY ASRC Photonics Initiative.]


    [1] From an early 2023 news cycle … lots of hype.

    • Physics World > “Physicists perform first measurement of ‘time reflection’ in microwaves” (Mar 17, 2023)

    The material in question consists of a 6m-long strip of metal serving as a microwave waveguide that snakes back and forth 20 times to form a device some 30 cm^2. Thirty capacitive circuits are positioned at regular intervals along the length of the strip, but separated from it by switches. The idea is to inject a train of microwave pulses and then switch all the circuits on or off at the same time while the pulses are in transit along the strip – causing a sudden change in the metamaterial’s effective refractive index and impedance. That sudden change temporally reflects the microwave signal.

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