Why virtual particles don’t exist but do explain reality – for now

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So-called virtual particles aren't particles astatine all. Some reason that they are simply mathematical figments, and that we request to find a amended measurement to understand particle interactions

By Abigail Beall

2J1JM3H Patterns successful a pond. Cropped changeable of a digit rubbing h2o to shape ripples.

Yuri Arcurs/Alamy

THE first point you request to cognize is that virtual particles, which are intolerable to debar if you want to understand really nan fundamental forces of nature animate matter, aren’t really particles astatine all. “The connection makes group misunderstand,” says Matt Strassler, a theoretical physicist astatine Harvard University. The 2nd is that they mightiness not beryllium due beingness constituents of nan universe.

Let’s commencement pinch immoderate basics. According to quantum theory, our champion explanation of nan subatomic realm, particles aren’t nan infinitesimal snooker balls we thin to imagine, but excitations successful underlying quantum fields. The Higgs boson is simply a spike successful nan underlying Higgs field, for instance, and electrons are spikes successful nan electromagnetic field.

These fields permeate nan full universe, but we can’t observe them directly. What we spot are particles – clear disturbances successful a section that persist complete clip and interact pinch other, akin disturbances to nutrient much particles.

Virtual particles are much subtle. So subtle, successful fact, that though they tin beryllium thought of arsenic disturbances successful underlying fields, they don’t persist for agelong – and can’t beryllium straight detected.

This is wherever things get confusing, because virtual particles do look to impact nan properties and behaviour of different particles successful measurable ways. They look to beryllium emitted and absorbed by existent particles erstwhile those particles interact, which is why we trust connected virtual particles for our knowing of really 3 of nan known basal forces – electromagnetism and nan beardown and anemic atomic forces – work.