What is mass?


I should confess that one of the reasons why I have chosen to be a physicist is that physics, like no other sciences, is able to give answers to fundamental open questions that until a few years ago were only discussed by philosophers. Most of these questions are ancient as our species and the possibility that we have means to get truth is too strong to lose our time with other activities. So, I managed to learn such means and today I am here writing on this blog trying to explain you what these truths are. Sometime, I am at the forefront of research and so, what can be believed a truth may lose this quality as we deepen our understanding. Indeed, dynamics of science adds one more element of charm to all this matter.

One of such old questions is: “What are we made of?”. This question has been an open question till the dawn of the 20th century with the fundamental experiments carried out by Ernst Rutherford. Till then we have learned so much about matter that this question changed form becoming: “What is mass?”. This question has become compelling with the birth of the Standard Model due to Sheldon Lee Glashow, Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam. Indeed, in order to maintain symmetry we must ask all particles to be massless and some mechanism must exist giving mass to them. In the sixties and seventies of last century we moved toward a real understanding of this concept. The idea is to rely on the Higgs mechanism and a scalar particle must exist to grant masses to the other particles in the model. As you may know this particle has not yet been seen and it is the only missing element of an otherwise very successful model. We are confident for several reasons that the Higgs mechanism could turn out the right answer to the question on mass but we are no more so confident that should have the simple aspect given originally in the Standard Model. Indeed, this appears as an open door on a Pandora’s vase of new exciting physics.

But whatever will be the mechanism at work for the masses of leptons and quarks, the answer to the main question is not there. For one reason, both electrons and quarks that form protons and neutrons are really light and do not count too much on the determination of our mass. Most of the mass is in the nuclei and we have to understand where such mass comes from. This arises from bound states of quarks glued together in some way as should yield QCD at low energies. This gives you an idea of why is so important to understand QCD at very low energy. In this way we would be able to answer a fundamental question philosophers discussed for so long time.

So, for our everyday life, it is not so relevant to comprehend the real mechanism that gives mass to elementary particles . What we need is to prove the existence of a mass gap in Yang-Mills theory and so the way bound states form in QCD. As you may know, this is not an easy task and involves a lot of talented people around the World that, with a lot of inventive, is trying to do such computations. So far, only computers succeeded in giving an answer and this is so good that we have the most important observed parameters precise to one percent. The hope is to have a technique to work out such computations analytically, as happens for weak coupled physics. I am deeply involved in such enterprise and I think that what will come out will have a large impact on our knowledge. I can only say: Stay tuned!


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