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Particle Physics for Non-Physicists: A Tour of the Microcosmos

Particle Physics for Non-Physicists: A Tour of the Microcosmos

Professor Steven Pollock Ph.D.
University of Colorado, Boulder
Course No.  1247
Course No.  1247
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

This two-part series explains, in easily accessible terms, the discovery of the infinitely small particles-the quarks and neutrinos, muons and bosons-that make up everything in nature, from microbes to stars.

It covers the nature and functions of the individual particles, and their roles in the Standard Model of particle physics (a theory that is as much a masterpiece in science as Shakespeare's works are in literature). The lectures also trace the history of particle physics as a science, and the dedicated scientists and complex technology that have made this branch of physics so profoundly productive and important.

This course provides a framework to understand such cutting-edge physics research as gravity waves, dark matter, and string theory.

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This two-part series explains, in easily accessible terms, the discovery of the infinitely small particles-the quarks and neutrinos, muons and bosons-that make up everything in nature, from microbes to stars.

It covers the nature and functions of the individual particles, and their roles in the Standard Model of particle physics (a theory that is as much a masterpiece in science as Shakespeare's works are in literature). The lectures also trace the history of particle physics as a science, and the dedicated scientists and complex technology that have made this branch of physics so profoundly productive and important.

This course provides a framework to understand such cutting-edge physics research as gravity waves, dark matter, and string theory.

View Less
24 Lectures
  • 1
    Nature of Physics
    What is the world made of, how do the constituents fit, and what are the fundamental rules they obey? We discuss the history of human understanding of atoms and subatoms, and articulate some primary ideas in particle physics, focusing on what we know well. x
  • 2
    Standard Model of Particle Physics
    Where do we stand in our understanding of the smallest building blocks of the world? The Standard Model of particle physics is one of the greatest quantitative success stories in science. What are the players, what are the forces, and what are some of the concepts and buzzwords? x
  • 3
    Pre-History of Particle Physics
    We summarize the scientific evolution of atomism: prescientific ideas, the classical worldview of Isaac Newton, and finally the modern ideas of fundamental constituents. How could a famous physicist say physics was "done" in 1899? x
  • 4
    Birth of Modern Physics
    We explore the transition from 19th-century classical physics to 20th-century modern physics. This is the story of Planck, Rutherford, Einstein, and the early quantum physicists. We gain our primitive first understandings of the realistic structure of atoms. x
  • 5
    Quantum Mechanics Gets Serious
    A qualitative introduction to the work of Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and Dirac in describing electrons, this lecture looks at how the first fundamental particle was discovered. We introduce such concepts as spin and quantum electrodynamics (QED), and conclude with the experimental discovery of antimatter and the neutron. x
  • 6
    New Particles & New Technologies
    This lecture conducts a survey of particle physics in the first half of the 20th century: cosmic rays, the discovery of the muon (Who ordered that?), Yukawa's theory of nuclear force, and the discovery of the pion. We conclude by discussing the electron volt (ev) as a tool to make sense of the particle discoveries to come. x
  • 7
    Weak Interactions & the Neutrino
    What is a weak interaction, and how is it connected to radioactivity? What is an interaction, anyway, and how does it differ from a force? We discuss the carriers of weak forces, W and Z particles, and introduce neutrinos—ghostlike particles with no mass. x
  • 8
    Accelerators & Particle Explosion
    Particle accelerators, born after World War II, were in some respects the origin of big science in the United States. We discuss how these machines worked and the steady stream of new particles discovered through their use. x
  • 9
    Particle "Zoo"
    Some new particles exhibited a curious mix of strong and weak properties. The proper description of these "strange particles" was crucial in understanding the particle "zoo." This lecture introduces lots of new lingo—mesons and baryons, hadrons and leptons, bosons and fermions. x
  • 10
    Fields & Forces
    This lecture covers the concept of a field and the early problems involved in constructing the modern theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED). We examine the 1947 Shelter Island conference, the problem of infinities, the concept of renormalization, and Feynman diagrams. x
  • 11
    "Three Quarks for Muster Mark"
    Hadrons (strongly interacting particles) are fundamental but not elementary. Could they be made of something else? This is the breakthrough idea of quarks. This lecture explores early quark conditions. x
  • 12
    From Quarks to QCD
    If quarks are the fundamental particles, how do they interact? The answer: They carry a new charge, a strong charge described by color. We introduce these concepts as part of the fledgling theory of quantum chromodynamics (QCD) from the 1970s. x
  • 13
    Symmetry & Conservation Laws
    What does symmetry mean to a physicist? Pretty much what it means to you: an aesthetic property of a system, a pattern that appears the same when viewed from different perspectives. x
  • 14
    Broken Symmetry, Shattered Mirrors
    Symmetry is sometimes slightly broken or badly broken. Either way, there is something useful to be learned about the world. This lecture explores (a seemingly obvious) mirror symmetry, also called parity, and the stunning surprise that it is not perfect (parity violation). x
  • 15
    November Revolution of 1974
    In November of 1974, two simultaneous experimental discoveries rocked the world of particle physics. A new particle, a new quark, had been found. The charmed quark changed the scientific paradigm for physicists overnight. x
  • 16
    A New Generation
    The last great surprises: a new generation of particles. The tau lepton is discovered, and symmetry arguments tell scientists that the tau neutrino, and bottom and top quarks, have to be there ... and they are! x
  • 17
    Weak Forces & the Standard Model
    Progress in the 1960s and '70s was not limited to strong forces and quarks. This is the story of the theory of Weinberg, Salam, and Glashow—the electroweak theory—that unified the fundamental weak, electric, and magnetic forces. We can now summarize the Standard Model. x
  • 18
    Greatest Success Story in Physics
    The Standard Model of particle physics is an impressive accomplishment. Its unparalleled success includes qualitative and quantitative measurements, with years of increasingly precise tests. x
  • 19
    The Higgs Particle
    The Higgs particle is the least understood piece of our story so far, and the one central part not yet directly verified. What is this particle, and what role does it play in the Standard Model? x
  • 20
    Solar Neutrino Puzzle
    We have always assumed that neutrinos are massless, but what if they did have mass? Why are there far fewer neutrinos coming from the sun than there should be? What does it mean to talk about neutrinos changing flavor? x
  • 21
    Back to the Future (1)—Experiments to Come
    The SSC may be dead, but experimental particle physics is alive and vibrant! What are some of the burning issues? Among those we will discuss are the search for violations of matter-antimatter symmetry, and neutrino beams that will travel through the Earth from source to target. x
  • 22
    Back to the Future (2)—Puzzles & Progress
    The Standard Model is a great success. So why are many physicists looking for a more fundamental theory of nature? We'll begin with the missing link of gravity; issues of simplicity, unification, and grand unification; then two developments that to many physicists seem to be the best candidates for new physics: supersymmetry and string theory. x
  • 23
    Really Big Stuff—The Origin of the Universe
    What does cosmology, the study of the universe as a whole, have to do with particle physics? Matter at the very largest scales requires understanding of matter at the very tiniest. We'll discuss how particle physics fits in with the Big Bang, the more recent theory of inflation, and the newly discovered dark matter and dark energy. x
  • 24
    Looking Back & Looking Forward
    What have we learned after more than 100 years of intense study of fundamental particles? What puzzles remain? What you might take out of this course is a sense of physical order and understanding of the constituents of the larger world. x

Lecture Titles

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Steven Pollock
Ph.D. Steven Pollock
University of Colorado, Boulder

Dr. Steven Pollock is Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He earned his B.S. in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his master's degree and Ph.D. in Physics from Stanford University. Prior to taking his position at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Professor Pollock was a senior researcher at the National Institute for Nuclear and High Energy Physics. In 2013, Professor Pollock was honored with a U.S. Professor of the Year award from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He is also the recipient of the Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship and the University of Coloradoπs Boulder Faculty Assembly Teaching Excellence Award. He has taught a wide variety of physics courses at all levels, from introductory physics to advanced nuclear and particle physics, with an intriguing recent foray into the physics of energy and the environment. Professor Pollock is the author of the multimedia textbook Physics I. He became a Pew/Carnegie National Teaching Scholar in 2001, and is a member of the American Physical Society-Nuclear Physics Division and the American Association of Physics Teachers. He has presented both nuclear physics research and his scholarship on teaching at numerous conferences, seminars, and colloquia.

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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 85 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by How to have a great time learning physics I now have a new teaching company hero: Steven Pollock. First, there was Robert Greenberg . Then there was Alex Filippenko . Now there is Steven Pollock. Dr. Pollock is a great lecturer. He is clear, intelligent, exciting, and excited. He obviously loves his topic, and he makes you love it as well. His analogies are clear and compelling. His enthusiasm is infectious. I have never had more fun taking a Teaching Company course than this one. I initially tried this course mostly because I had completed several other physics based courses, and was looking for a new one. I’m not a particle physicist, but I do have a math background and I know something about the standard model, so I really wasn’t expecting much when I started these lectures. However, it wasn’t long before I became totally engaged. The 24 lectures sped by. The lack of mathematics, which could have been a negative, was not a limitation at all. I’m now done, and I want more from Dr. Pollock. I can hardly wait for his next course; just like Dr. Greenberg. December 22, 2013
Rated 3 out of 5 by Premature? In this series of lectures, Professor Steven Pollock endeavours to introduce the topic of subatomic particles to a non-specialized public. One major hurdle is that he shies away from any math whatsoever and consequently his explanations often come out mundane, if not downright laughable. He compares for instance the evolving ‘colour’ of subatomic particles to vanilla ice cream magically changing to Neapolitan on the way back from the grocery store. Even more significantly, the field he describes is evolving very rapidly. Not only are new subatomic particles regularly discovered, the overall intellectual framework as to how they fit together is under reconstruction, notably because the current scheme does not account for gravity. Thus, Professor Pollock’s most interesting lectures are those dealing with the first half of the 20th century. Afterwards, things accelerate and the overall picture gets muddled. Professor Pollock comes out as a knowledgeable and energetic lecturer. His fascination with the Nobel Prize and, seemingly, with fame and glory in general, is at once charming and annoying. So is his apparently limited knowledge of facets of life outside physics, including table manners _ he claims not to know if one should drink from the glass of water to the right or to the left of one's plate! Despite its shortcomings, this course will certainly be interesting to those wishing to better understand the context of the ‘major breakthroughs’ periodically popping up in the news regarding particle physics. November 17, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Professor Pollock's presentation drew me in from the first lecture. Have re-listened to this course 4 times and have learned more each time. He provides the "big picture" as well as details on each group of particles, what they are and how they fit into the "standard model" of particle physics. If you have been fascinated by the discover of the Higgs at the LHC, then this course will provide the entire story. Highly recommended. October 13, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 by Interesting Course Clarified Many Questions The course covers material you hear about but might not understand. Be patient and hang in there and you will be rewarded with insight. This is not an easy course to digest particularly without an ability to interact with the instructor. Every statement sparks a few questions that made me want to raise my hand and ask a question. I had to repeat a few of the lectures in order to sort out the terminology. This course isn't for the learner with only a casual interest in the subject. I liked that. I like courses that get a bit over my head because that forces me to study, stretch, learn. The fruit of this course is being able to understand (mostly) the Standard Model and to have a [loose] grip on the terms used to describe the particle zoo. It would take serious work to remember all of the terminology. My only criticism is that this course could use more visuals. I found myself lost a few times in whether a term was describing a class of particle or an actual particle. I often needed to go online and grab a chart for reference. It helps to have some background with this material. Professor Pollack is very good and certainly engaging. It matters to me, I don't know why, that the instructors 'feel' like nice people. Dr. Pollack is one of those instructors you wish you could spend time with. Great course and I do recommend it. Have some background in the subject and accept the fact that you may need to repeat a few lectures. I appreciate the level of instruction and content. August 27, 2013
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