Fundamental interaction

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In physics, the fundamental interactions, also known as fundamental forces, are the interactions that do not appear to be reducible to more basic interactions. There are four conventionally accepted fundamental interactions—gravitational, electromagnetic, strong, and weak. Each one is described mathematically as a field. The gravitational force is modelled as a continuous classical field. The other three, part of the Standard Model of particle physics, are described as discrete quantum fields, and their interactions are each carried by a quantum, an elementary particle.

The strong and weak interactions have short ranges, producing forces at minuscule, subatomic distances; these forces govern nuclear interactions. The strong interaction, which is carried by the gluon particle, is responsible for the binding of quarks together to form hadrons, such as protons and neutrons. As a residual effect, it creates the nuclear force that binds the latter particles to form atomic nuclei. The weak interaction, which is carried by the W and Z particles, also acts on the nucleus, mediating radioactive decay. The other two, electromagnetism and gravity, produce significant forces at macroscopic scales where the effects can be seen directly in everyday life. The electromagnetic force, carried by the photon, creates electric and magnetic fields, which are responsible for chemical bonding and are used in electrical technology. Electromagnetic forces tend to cancel each other out when large collections of objects are considered, so over the largest distances (on the scale of planets and galaxies), gravity tends to be the dominant force.

All four fundamental forces are believed to be related, and to unite into a single force at high energies on a minuscule scale, the Planck scale, but particle accelerators cannot produce the enormous energies required to experimentally probe this. A goal of theoretical physicists working beyond the Standard Model is to quantize the gravitational field, yielding a theory of quantum gravity (QG) which would unite gravity in a common theoretical framework with the other three forces. Other theorists seek to unite the electroweak and strong fields within a Grand Unified Theory (GUT). Some theories, notably string theory, seek both QG and GUT within one framework, unifying all four fundamental interactions along with mass generation within a theory of everything (ToE). A few researchers have interpreted various anomalous observations in physics as evidence for a fifth force, but this is not widely accepted.

The four fundamental interactions of nature[1]
Property/Interaction Gravitation Weak Electromagnetic Strong
(Electroweak) Fundamental Residual
Acts on: Mass - Energy Flavor Electric charge Color charge Atomic nuclei
Particles experiencing: All Quarks, leptons Electrically charged Quarks, Gluons Hadrons
Particles mediating: Recently observed[2]
(Graviton hypothesised, not fully understood)
W+, W and Z0 γ (photon) Gluons π, ρ and ω mesons
Strength at the scale of quarks: 10−41 10−4 1 60 Not applicable
to quarks
Strength at the scale of
10−36 10−7 1 Not applicable
to hadrons


Classical theory[edit]

In his 1687 theory, Isaac Newton postulated space as an infinite and unalterable physical structure existing before, within, and around all objects while their states and relations unfold at a constant pace everywhere, thus absolute space and time. Inferring that all objects bearing mass approach at a constant rate, but collide by impact proportional to their masses, Newton inferred that matter exhibits an attractive force. His law of universal gravitation mathematically stated it to span the entire universe instantly (despite absolute time), or, if not actually a force, to be instant interaction among all objects (despite absolute space.) As conventionally interpreted, Newton's theory of motion modelled a central force without a communicating medium.[3] Thus Newton's theory violated the first principle of mechanical philosophy, as stated by Descartes, No action at a distance. Conversely, during the 1820s, when explaining magnetism, Michael Faraday inferred a field filling space and transmitting that force. Faraday conjectured that ultimately, all forces unified into one.

In the early 1870s, James Clerk Maxwell unified electricity and magnetism as effects of an electromagnetic field whose third consequence was light, travelling at constant speed in a vacuum. The electromagnetic field theory contradicted predictions of Newton's theory of motion, unless physical states of the luminiferous aether—presumed to fill all space whether within matter or in a vacuum and to manifest the electromagnetic field—aligned all phenomena and thereby held valid the Newtonian principle relativity or invariance.

The Standard Model[edit]

Main article: Standard Model
The Standard Model of elementary particles, with the fermions in the first three columns, the gauge bosons in the fourth column, and the Higgs boson in the fifth column

The Standard Model of particle physics was developed throughout the latter half of the 20th century. In the Standard Model, the electromagnetic, strong, and weak interactions associate with elementary particles, whose behaviours are modelled in quantum mechanics (QM). For predictive success with QM's probabilistic outcomes, particle physics conventionally models QM events across a field set to special relativity, altogether relativistic quantum field theory (QFT).[4] Force particles, called gauge bosonsforce carriers or messenger particles of underlying fields—interact with matter particles, called fermions. Everyday matter is atoms, composed of three fermion types: up-quarks and down-quarks constituting, as well as electrons orbiting, the atom's nucleus. Atoms interact, form molecules, and manifest further properties through electromagnetic interactions among their electrons absorbing and emitting photons, the electromagnetic field's force carrier, which if unimpeded traverse potentially infinite distance. Electromagnetism's QFT is quantum electrodynamics (QED).

The electromagnetic interaction was modelled with the weak interaction, whose force carriers are W and Z bosons, traversing the minuscule distance, in electroweak theory (EWT). Electroweak interaction would operate at such high temperatures as soon after the presumed Big Bang, but, as the early universe cooled, split into electromagnetic and weak interactions. The strong interaction, whose force carrier is the gluon, traversing minuscule distance among quarks, is modeled in quantum chromodynamics (QCD). EWT, QCD, and the Higgs mechanism, whereby the Higgs field manifests Higgs bosons that interact with some quantum particles and thereby endow those particles with mass comprise particle physics' Standard Model (SM). Predictions are usually made using calculational approximation methods, although such perturbation theory is inadequate to model some experimental observations (for instance bound states and solitons.) Still, physicists widely accept the Standard Model as science's most experimentally confirmed theory.

Beyond the Standard Model, some theorists work to unite the electroweak and strong interactions within a Grand Unified Theory (GUT). Some attempts at GUTs hypothesize "shadow" particles, such that every known matter particle associates with an undiscovered force particle, and vice versa, altogether supersymmetry (SUSY). Other theorists seek to quantize the gravitational field by the modelling behaviour of its hypothetical force carrier, the graviton and achieve quantum gravity (QG). One approach to QG is loop quantum gravity (LQG). Still other theorists seek both QG and GUT within one framework, reducing all four fundamental interactions to a Theory of Everything (ToE). The most prevalent aim at a ToE is string theory, although to model matter particles, it added SUSY to force particles—and so, strictly speaking, became superstring theory. Multiple, seemingly disparate superstring theories were unified on a backbone, M-theory. Theories beyond the Standard Model remain highly speculative, lacking great experimental support.

Overview of the fundamental interactions[edit]

An overview of the various families of elementary and composite particles, and the theories describing their interactions. Fermions are on the left, and Bosons are on the right.

In the conceptual model of fundamental interactions, matter consists of fermions, which carry properties called charges and spin ±12 (intrinsic angular momentum ±ħ2, where ħ is the reduced Planck constant). They attract or repel each other by exchanging bosons.

The interaction of any pair of fermions in perturbation theory can then be modelled thus:

Two fermions go in → interaction by boson exchange → Two changed fermions go out.

The exchange of bosons always carries energy and momentum between the fermions, thereby changing their speed and direction. The exchange may also transport a charge between the fermions, changing the charges of the fermions in the process (e.g., turn them from one type of fermion to another). Since bosons carry one unit of angular momentum, the fermion's spin direction will flip from +12 to −12 (or vice versa) during such an exchange (in units of the reduced Planck's constant).

Because an interaction results in fermions attracting and repelling each other, an older term for "interaction" is force.

According to the present understanding, there are four fundamental interactions or forces: gravitation, electromagnetism, the weak interaction, and the strong interaction. Their magnitude and behaviour vary greatly, as described in the table below. Modern physics attempts to explain every observed physical phenomenon by these fundamental interactions. Moreover, reducing the number of different interaction types is seen as desirable. Two cases in point are the unification of:

Both magnitude ("relative strength") and "range", as given in the table, are meaningful only within a rather complex theoretical framework. It should also be noted that the table below lists properties of a conceptual scheme that is still the subject of ongoing research.

Interaction Current theory Mediators Relative strength[5] Long-distance behavior Range (m)[citation needed]
Strong Quantum chromodynamics
gluons 1038
(see discussion below)
Electromagnetic Quantum electrodynamics
photons 1036
Weak Electroweak Theory (EWT) W and Z bosons 1025 10−18
Gravitation General relativity
gravitons (hypothetical) 1

The modern (perturbative) quantum mechanical view of the fundamental forces other than gravity is that particles of matter (fermions) do not directly interact with each other, but rather carry a charge, and exchange virtual particles (gauge bosons), which are the interaction carriers or force mediators. For example, photons mediate the interaction of electric charges, and gluons mediate the interaction of color charges.

The interactions[edit]


Main article: Gravity

Gravitation is by far the weakest of the four interactions. The weakness of gravity can easily be demonstrated by suspending a pin using a simple magnet (such as a refrigerator magnet). The magnet is able to hold the pin against the gravitational pull of the entire Earth.

Yet gravitation is very important for macroscopic objects and over macroscopic distances for the following reasons. Gravitation:

  • Is the only interaction that acts on all particles having mass, energy and/or momentum
  • Has an infinite range, like electromagnetism but unlike strong and weak interaction[citation needed]
  • Cannot be absorbed, transformed, or shielded against
  • Always attracts and never repels

Even though electromagnetism is far stronger than gravitation, electrostatic attraction is not relevant for large celestial bodies, such as planets, stars, and galaxies, simply because such bodies contain equal numbers of protons and electrons and so have a net electric charge of zero. Nothing "cancels" gravity, since it is only attractive, unlike electric forces which can be attractive or repulsive. On the other hand, all objects having mass are subject to the gravitational force, which only attracts. Therefore, only gravitation matters on the large-scale structure of the universe.

The long range of gravitation makes it responsible for such large-scale phenomena as the structure of galaxies and black holes and it retards the expansion of the universe.[citation needed] Gravitation also explains astronomical phenomena on more modest scales, such as planetary orbits, as well as everyday experience: objects fall; heavy objects act as if they were glued to the ground, and animals can only jump so high.

Gravitation was the first interaction to be described mathematically. In ancient times, Aristotle hypothesized that objects of different masses fall at different rates. During the Scientific Revolution, Galileo Galilei experimentally determined that this was not the case — neglecting the friction due to air resistance, and buoyancy forces if an atmosphere is present (e.g. the case of a dropped air-filled balloon vs a water-filled balloon) all objects accelerate toward the Earth at the same rate. Isaac Newton's law of Universal Gravitation (1687) was a good approximation of the behaviour of gravitation. Our present-day understanding of gravitation stems from Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity of 1915, a more accurate (especially for cosmological masses and distances) description of gravitation in terms of the geometry of spacetime.

Merging general relativity and quantum mechanics (or quantum field theory) into a more general theory of quantum gravity is an area of active research. It is hypothesized that gravitation is mediated by a massless spin-2 particle called the graviton.

Although general relativity has been experimentally confirmed (at least for weak fields[which?]) on all but the smallest scales, there are rival theories of gravitation. Those taken seriously by [citation needed] the physics community all reduce to general relativity in some limit, and the focus of observational work is to establish limitations on what deviations from general relativity are possible.

Proposed extra dimensions could explain why the gravity force is so weak.[6]

Electroweak interaction[edit]

Electromagnetism and weak interaction appear to be very different at everyday low energies. They can be modeled using two different theories. However, above unification energy, on the order of 100 GeV, they would merge into a single electroweak force.

Electroweak theory is very important for modern cosmology, particularly on how the universe evolved. This is because shortly after the Big Bang, the temperature was approximately above 1015 K. Electromagnetic force and weak force were merged into a combined electroweak force.

For contributions to the unification of the weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, Abdus Salam, Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979.[7][8]


Main article: Electromagnetism

Electromagnetism is the force that acts between electrically charged particles. This phenomenon includes the electrostatic force acting between charged particles at rest, and the combined effect of electric and magnetic forces acting between charged particles moving relative to each other.

Electromagnetism is infinite-ranged like gravity, but vastly stronger, and therefore describes a number of macroscopic phenomena of everyday experience such as friction, rainbows, lightning, and all human-made devices using electric current, such as television, lasers, and computers. Electromagnetism fundamentally determines all macroscopic, and many atomic levels, properties of the chemical elements, including all chemical bonding.

In a four kilogram (~1 gallon) jug of water there are

of total electron charge. Thus, if we place two such jugs a meter apart, the electrons in one of the jugs repel those in the other jug with a force of

This is larger than the planet Earth would weigh if weighed on another Earth. The atomic nuclei in one jug also repel those in the other with the same force. However, these repulsive forces are canceled by the attraction of the electrons in jug A with the nuclei in jug B and the attraction of the nuclei in jug A with the electrons in jug B, resulting in no net force. Electromagnetic forces are tremendously stronger than gravity but cancel out so that for large bodies gravity dominates.

Electrical and magnetic phenomena have been observed since ancient times, but it was only in the 19th century that it was discovered that electricity and magnetism are two aspects of the same fundamental interaction. By 1864, Maxwell's equations had rigorously quantified this unified interaction. Maxwell's theory, restated using vector calculus, is the classical theory of electromagnetism, suitable for most technological purposes.

The constant speed of light in a vacuum (customarily described with the letter "c") can be derived from Maxwell's equations, which are consistent with the theory of special relativity. Einstein's 1905 theory of special relativity, however, which flows from the observation that the speed of light is constant no matter how fast the observer is moving, showed that the theoretical result implied by Maxwell's equations has profound implications far beyond electromagnetism on the very nature of time and space.

In another work that departed from classical electro-magnetism, Einstein also explained the photoelectric effect by hypothesizing that light was transmitted in quanta, which we now call photons. Starting around 1927, Paul Dirac combined quantum mechanics with the relativistic theory of electromagnetism. Further work in the 1940s, by Richard Feynman, Freeman Dyson, Julian Schwinger, and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, completed this theory, which is now called quantum electrodynamics, the revised theory of electromagnetism. Quantum electrodynamics and quantum mechanics provide a theoretical basis for electromagnetic behavior such as quantum tunneling, in which a certain percentage of electrically charged particles move in ways that would be impossible under the classical electromagnetic theory, that is necessary for everyday electronic devices such as transistors to function.

Weak interaction[edit]

Main article: Weak interaction

The weak interaction or weak nuclear force is responsible for some nuclear phenomena such as beta decay. Electromagnetism and the weak force are now understood to be two aspects of a unified electroweak interaction — this discovery was the first step toward the unified theory known as the Standard Model. In the theory of the electroweak interaction, the carriers of the weak force are the massive gauge bosons called the W and Z bosons. The weak interaction is the only known interaction which does not conserve parity; it is left-right asymmetric. The weak interaction even violates CP symmetry but does conserve CPT.

Strong interaction[edit]

Main article: Strong interaction

The strong interaction, or strong nuclear force, is the most complicated interaction, mainly because of the way it varies with distance. At distances greater than 10 femtometers, the strong force is practically unobservable. Moreover, it holds only inside the atomic nucleus.

After the nucleus was discovered in 1908, it was clear that a new force, today known as the nuclear force, was needed to overcome the electrostatic repulsion, a manifestation of electromagnetism, of the positively charged protons. Otherwise, the nucleus could not exist. Moreover, the force had to be strong enough to squeeze the protons into a volume that is about 10−15 m, much smaller than that of the entire atom. From the short range of this force, Hideki Yukawa predicted that it was associated with a massive particle, whose mass is approximately 100 MeV.

The 1947 discovery of the pion ushered in the modern era of particle physics. Hundreds of hadrons were discovered from the 1940s to 1960s, and an extremely complicated theory of hadrons as strongly interacting particles was developed. Most notably:

While each of these approaches offered deep insights, no approach led directly to a fundamental theory.

Murray Gell-Mann along with George Zweig first proposed fractionally charged quarks in 1961. Throughout the 1960s, different authors considered theories similar to the modern fundamental theory of quantum chromodynamics (QCD) as simple models for the interactions of quarks. The first to hypothesize the gluons of QCD were Moo-Young Han and Yoichiro Nambu, who introduced the quark color charge and hypothesized that it might be associated with a force-carrying field. At that time, however, it was difficult to see how such a model could permanently confine quarks. Han and Nambu also assigned each quark color an integer electrical charge, so that the quarks were fractionally charged only on average, and they did not expect the quarks in their model to be permanently confined.

In 1971, Murray Gell-Mann and Harald Fritzsch proposed that the Han/Nambu color gauge field was the correct theory of the short-distance interactions of fractionally charged quarks. A little later, David Gross, Frank Wilczek, and David Politzer discovered that this theory had the property of asymptotic freedom, allowing them to make contact with experimental evidence. They concluded that QCD was the complete theory of the strong interactions, correct at all distance scales. The discovery of asymptotic freedom led most physicists to accept QCD since it became clear that even the long-distance properties of the strong interactions could be consistent with experiment if the quarks are permanently confined.

Assuming that quarks are confined, Mikhail Shifman, Arkady Vainshtein and Valentine Zakharov were able to compute the properties of many low-lying hadrons directly from QCD, with only a few extra parameters to describe the vacuum. In 1980, Kenneth G. Wilson published computer calculations based on the first principles of QCD, establishing, to a level of confidence tantamount to certainty, that QCD will confine quarks. Since then, QCD has been the established theory of the strong interactions.

QCD is a theory of fractionally charged quarks interacting by means of 8 bosonic particles called gluons. The gluons interact with each other, not just with the quarks, and at long distances the lines of force collimate into strings. In this way, the mathematical theory of QCD not only explains how quarks interact over short distances but also the string-like behavior, discovered by Chew and Frautschi, which they manifest over longer distances.

Beyond the Standard Model[edit]

Numerous theoretical efforts have been made to systematize the existing four fundamental interactions on the model of electroweak unification.

Grand Unified Theories (GUTs) are proposals to show that all of the fundamental interactions, other than gravity, arise from a single interaction with symmetries that break down at low energy levels. GUTs predict relationships among constants of nature that are unrelated in the SM. GUTs also predict gauge coupling unification for the relative strengths of the electromagnetic, weak, and strong forces, a prediction verified at the Large Electron–Positron Collider in 1991 for supersymmetric theories.

Theories of everything, which integrate GUTs with a quantum gravity theory face a greater barrier, because no quantum gravity theories, which include string theory, loop quantum gravity, and twistor theory, have secured wide acceptance. Some theories look for a graviton to complete the Standard Model list of force-carrying particles, while others, like loop quantum gravity, emphasize the possibility that time-space itself may have a quantum aspect to it.

Some theories beyond the Standard Model include a hypothetical fifth force, and the search for such a force is an ongoing line of experimental research in physics. In supersymmetric theories, there are particles that acquire their masses only through supersymmetry breaking effects and these particles, known as moduli can mediate new forces. Another reason to look for new forces is the recent discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating (also known as dark energy), giving rise to a need to explain a nonzero cosmological constant, and possibly to other modifications of general relativity. Fifth forces have also been suggested to explain phenomena such as CP violations, dark matter, and dark flow.

In December 2015, two observations in the ATLAS and CMS detectors at the Large Hadron Collider hinted at the existence of a new particle six times heavier than the Higgs Boson.[9] However, after obtaining more experimental data, the anomaly appeared to not be significant.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Standard Model of Particles and Interactions". Johns Hopkins University. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved August 18, 2016. .gif 
  2. ^ "Gravitational Waves Detected 100 Years After Einstein's Prediction". LIGO Lab | Caltech. Retrieved 2017-04-27. 
  3. ^ Newton's absolute space was a medium, but not one transmitting gravitation.
  4. ^ Meinard Kuhlmann, "Physicists debate whether the world is made of particles or fields—or something else entirely", Scientific American, 24 Jul 2013.
  5. ^ Approximate. See Coupling constant for more exact strengths, depending on the particles and energies involved.
  6. ^ CERN (20 January 2012). "Extra dimensions, gravitons, and tiny black holes". 
  7. ^ Bais, Sander (2005), The Equations. Icons of knowledge, ISBN 0-674-01967-9  p.84
  8. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Physics 1979". The Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 2008-12-16. 
  9. ^ "Is the Large Hadron Collider set to reveal secrets of the universe?". Retrieved 2016-07-12. 
  10. ^ Elizabeth Gibney (August 5, 2016). "Hopes for revolutionary new LHC particle dashed". Nature. Retrieved August 18, 2016. 




  • Padmanabhan, T. (1998), After The First Three Minutes: The Story of Our Universe, Cambridge Univ. Press, ISBN 0-521-62972-1 
  • Perkins, Donald H. (2000), Introduction to High Energy Physics, Cambridge Univ. Press, ISBN 0-521-62196-8 
  • Riazuddin (December 29, 2009). "Non-standard interactions" (PDF). NCP 5th Particle Physics Sypnoisis. Islamabad: Riazuddin, Head of High-Energy Theory Group at National Center for Physics. 1 (1): 1–25. Retrieved March 19, 2011.