Why the Weak Nuclear Force Ruins Everything


[♪ INTRO] The weak nuclear force gets short shrift among
the four fundamental forces of nature. People wax on about the marvels of gravity
that holds entire worlds together. They’ll detail electromagnetism, which lets
us see and keeps us from falling through the floor. They’ll even praise the strong nuclear force
that fights to keep nuclei together. Then they’ll say the weak nuclear force causes
radioactivity and fusion, and then move on. Which is a real shame, because the weak force
has been causing trouble for a century, ruining everything physicists thought was true. And at the same time, it might be responsible
for your very existence. Fundamentally, the weak force acts on leptons,
which includes electrons, neutrinos, and their heavier cousins, and on the quarks
that make up particles like protons and neutrons. When it acts, it changes a particle’s identity
by altering some of its properties. But other forces change particle types, too,
so that isn’t what makes the weak force special. It’s special because it’s the exception
to almost every rule. It’s the Mongols of the forces. Hints of trouble came around 1900, when scientists
thought atoms of elements were conserved. For example, they thought lead atoms were
lead atoms, no matter how they moved or bonded, and the same went for every other element. Then, they discovered radioactive decays:
Atoms of one element can transform into atoms of another just by shooting
some stuff out of their nuclei. Nobody knew it at the time, but this alchemy
was the result of the weak force. And that wasn’t the last time it overturned
scientific common sense. The weak force also majorly messes
with our ideas about symmetries, which help guide working physicists. These are things you might change about an
experiment without changing the results of it. Like, if I’m in front of an experiment and
you’re behind it, we shouldn’t get different results. Physics should just care that something is moving,
not that your left is the same as my right. Physicists in the early 1900s also figured
that swapping left for right is no different from swapping up and down, you can just turn
your head, or from swapping forward and backward. If all of those are symmetries, then swapping
all three of them at once should be, too. This is known as P symmetry to the cool kids,
and parity symmetry to the rest of us. And it says that if you flip all these directions,
no experiment will act differently. Experiments show that gravity would work the
same way, and so would electromagnetism and the strong nuclear force, making a good case
for P symmetry being true. But the weak force has to be different. See, particles have a property called spin. It’s more complicated than
the direction they’re really spinning, but it’s an okay mental picture to have here. One of P symmetry’s consequences would be
that if something with spin decays, particles should fly out of it in a random direction. But in 1957, physicists watching cobalt nuclei
decay reported that the direction of those decay particles depended on whether the cobalt
spun clockwise or counterclockwise. And since the weak force causes decays,
that meant the weak force is the only thing in the universe we’ve
ever seen violate P symmetry. Later experiments showed that spin really
matters, too: The weak force only acts on clockwise-spinning matter particles and counterclockwise antimatter ones. That also makes it the only force that treats
matter and antimatter any differently, so it’s the only one that violates another symmetry
called charge conjugation or C symmetry. And in case you were curious, it violates
both of them at once, too, known as CP symmetry. Much more recent experiments have also revealed
that the weak force is the only one violating T, or time-reversal symmetry. Gravitational, electromagnetic,
and strong nuclear effects would all look exactly the same if time ran backwards,
which is weird to think about. There are particles called B0 mesons that
throw a wrench in things. They can exist in two forms,
called B0 and anti-B0, and the weak force can freely switch
a particle between forms over time. Switching in either direction should be the
same, but switching from B0 to anti-B0 actually takes longer than
going the other direction. The weak force’s effects are therefore the
only ones that depend on the direction of time, too. Today’s physicists have retreated one more
time to CPT symmetry, a combination of all three. Special relativity and the Standard Model
of particle physics, two of the best-tested ideas humanity has ever had,
would both fall to pieces if it didn’t work. And finally, so far at least, there’s never
been a single experiment violating it. Although we are looking. Now, you might be wondering: So what? Why does it matter if one force is different
and doesn’t follow physicists’s made-up rules? Well, for one thing, we want to know how all
these forces are related to each other. That’s, like, a particle physicist’s whole job. Symmetries and conservation laws are also
two of the most effective tools we’ve ever found to guide us to new ideas. If one force keeps being a weirdo, it makes
understanding how the world works a lot harder. But there is another reason you might care: You could exist thanks to
that CP symmetry violation. One of the big problems in modern physics
is called the matter-antimatter asymmetry: Every reaction we’ve ever seen produces
equal amounts of matter and antimatter, but the Big Bang made
more of one than the other. Because otherwise, all the matter would have
collided with antimatter and annihilated into nothing. Of everything in the known universe,
the weak force is the only one that seems to differentiate
between matter and antimatter. So some modern scientists think that
the weak force caused that asymmetry: It may have resulted in about one extra
matter particle per billion particles. And that’s all it took to make everything,
everything. Nobody has worked out exactly how yet, but
the weak force is the only game in town, at least, among ideas with
solid experimental evidence. So it might not just be a pain
in the metaphorical physics butt. The weak nuclear force could also be the reason
the universe has anything in it at all. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow! We hope you’re okay after that. We love searching for the weird, eye-opening,
and downright amazing stuff in the universe, but we would love to hear what you want to
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the way, and we can keep making it. Thank you! [♪ OUTRO]

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