Natalie Wolchover writes: Though galaxies look larger than atoms and elephants appear to outweigh ants, some physicists have begun to suspect that size differences are illusory. Perhaps the fundamental description of the universe does not include the concepts of “mass” and “length,” implying that at its core, nature lacks a sense of scale.
This little-explored idea, known as scale symmetry, constitutes a radical departure from long-standing assumptions about how elementary particles acquire their properties. But it has recently emerged as a common theme of numerous talks and papers by respected particle physicists. With their field stuck at a nasty impasse, the researchers have returned to the master equations that describe the known particles and their interactions, and are asking: What happens when you erase the terms in the equations having to do with mass and length?
Nature, at the deepest level, may not differentiate between scales. With scale symmetry, physicists start with a basic equation that sets forth a massless collection of particles, each a unique confluence of characteristics such as whether it is matter or antimatter and has positive or negative electric charge. As these particles attract and repel one another and the effects of their interactions cascade like dominoes through the calculations, scale symmetry “breaks,” and masses and lengths spontaneously arise.
Similar dynamical effects generate 99 percent of the mass in the visible universe. Protons and neutrons are amalgams — each one a trio of lightweight elementary particles called quarks. The energy used to hold these quarks together gives them a combined mass that is around 100 times more than the sum of the parts. “Most of the mass that we see is generated in this way, so we are interested in seeing if it’s possible to generate all mass in this way,” said Alberto Salvio, a particle physicist at the Autonomous University of Madrid and the co-author of a recent paper on a scale-symmetric theory of nature. [Continue reading…]