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

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

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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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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Your professor

Steven Pollock

About Your Professor

Steven Pollock, Ph.D.
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...
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Particle Physics for Non-Physicists: A Tour of the Microcosmos is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 126.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent series Lectures are comprehensive and yet easy to understand for non-physicists
Date published: 2019-05-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Yes, I Now Have a Standard Model T-Shirt The course is a historical journey of the discovery of all the particles of the Standard Model, including coverage of the individuals and the work involved. Provides a descriptive explanation of the theoretical underpinnings of the Normalizable Relativistic Quantum Gauge Field Theory underlying the Standard Model including Quantum Electrodynamics and Chromodynamics. But none of the mathematics. So we now have an 50% understanding of 5% of all the stuff in the Universe. The rest we don't know about. Not bad for a species whose ancestors were living in trees three million years ago. The course was developed in 2003, so the Higgs Boson had not been discovered (2012), and the course predicted its discovery. I wish there were a few equations thrown in from time to time, I certainly developed a taste for it. What harm would there be showing Paul Dirac's Eigen Values for the antimatter solution (only has two 0's, two i's and 2 square brackets). Differential Equations were invented in 1671, nowadays they are a doddle. I don't know why everyone hides under the bed when they are mentioned. Since the course and the discovery of the Higgs, there have been a few developments such as WIMPs, weak interactions and dark matter. And how a Quantum Theory of Gravity would fit into the Standard Model. Would be useful if the course could be updated. Still, a very good course.
Date published: 2019-03-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This really is for non-physicists and well done. I have now watched this for the second time and heard and saw things I do not remember from the first time. Okay, no math background to speak of and a high school physics class long ago. That said, for me this was not only very educational but entrancing. I use courses such as this to help me get thru my workout on the recumbent bike. 30 or so minutes just zip by while watching this. And it is very neat to think about the Quark world and the various flavors. Quarks and leptons, who woulda thunk that is what we are made of. If the idea of learning about physics has intrigued you but you were afraid to try. Get this course. Love it.
Date published: 2019-01-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This Course is very Informative up to 2003 I took this course to learn what I did not know about particle physics. It talks about the Higgs boson that was discovered in 2012 so the information is a little bit obsolete but it is a good place to start. The course was recorded in 2003. I wish there was some updates to this course to find out what they know now. I learned some of particle physics back in high school and college from 1972 until 1980 and I never heard about the information that is contained in this course back then. They did not have definite proof of quarks back then and the reason they did not talk about this in my days of high school and college. It seems to take about 30 to 40 years for the proof to emerge and for us to find out what they found out. I think that the quarks will be found out to be basic quasi-stable elements that were created by the acceleration of the protons and electrons in the particle accelerators that decay when they are collided. Basic mass gain by acceleration by using Einsteins equation E=mc2. The reason I think this is because the mass of the quarks all seem to be the masses of some of the elements.
Date published: 2018-07-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course I checked out this great course from the local library and studied it completely. I later purchased the copy for my own use. Dr. Pollock did an excellent job of breaking up and explaining the known subatomic structure of the atom. He discussed all of the individual particles properties, mass, spin etc. After I studied the course, I attended a subatomic particles lecture by the 2004 Nobel Laureate in Physics at a local university and it was an immense help in understanding the lecture.
Date published: 2018-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lucid and fun Prof. Pollock is a great teacher. He's the sort of person who could explain why the sky is blue to a toddler, accurately and without condescension. He uses the honorific "Mr." when referring to great men like Einstein and Fermi, as if he were an elementary school teacher. I found this pleasing, although I can understand why math and physics experts might find it cloying. My background is in law, and from that perspective (lawyers also have to explain complicated matters accurately and plainly) I think he pulls it off. I took this course after Prof. Sean Carroll's Higgs Boson course, and enjoyed it all the more for not coming to the subject cold. But if you have never taken a physics course you'll be fine with this one. Partly that's because Prof. Pollock tells his story in historical sequence, so you first encounter ideas when their creators themselves don't yet know where their work is leading. Now and again he goes deeper into topics like symmetry that require more explanation. I was never bored, and the course made me feel smart, not stupid, which in context is pretty amazing. By then end of the course I wondered why, if particle physics postulates symmetry of time and location (that is, that these factors don't matter), it should reconcile with gravity, which is all about the geometry of space and time? Is gravity even a force, or is it a consequence? I'm not sure those are sensible questions, but I wouldn't hesitate to ask Prof. Pollock, and I'm pretty sure his answer would meet me where I am.
Date published: 2018-06-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Physics for the intellectually impaired This course should have titled “particle physics for grade school dropouts”. I am terrible at physics, the only science course I ever got less than an “A” in. This course talks down to an intolerable degree. It becomes annoying in the extreme when the teacher refers to great scientists as MR. so and so rather than Dr. or professor or at least by their full name. The teacher ( I am calling him teacher rather than professor ) seems so concerned about not going over the head of his students that he refers to the main theories and labels of physics as “buzzwords”. This is bad enough but in trying to not use “technical” terms the teacher creates total confusion. I have taken “physics in your life”, “The higgs boson and beyond” “physics in history” and both of Dr. Tyson’s courses etc.. I have never been as confused as this course made me. Worst of all some of the statements made by the teacher are just plain wrong. For example he states that it takes a great deal of energy to find small non massive particles. Wrong. The smaller and lighter the particle is the easier it is to recreate in a particle accelerator. The massive weight of the Higgs Boson is the reason the LHC was needed to recreate it. My strong suggestion for those students who want an intro to particle physics try either one of Dr. Tyson’s courses, or physics in your life. These courses are not exclusively particle physics but at least they are well taught and not confusing.
Date published: 2018-05-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course for Non-Scientists Professor Pollock shares his obvious love of learning in a way that brings a complex subject within the grasp of anyone.
Date published: 2018-04-15
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