Yang-Mills: Plays Well With Itself

Part Two of a Series on N=4 Super Yang-Mills Theory

This is the second in a series of articles that will explain N=4 super Yang-Mills theory. In this series I take that phrase apart bit by bit, explaining as I go. Because I’m perverse and out to confuse you, I started with the last bit here, and now I’m working my way up.

N=4 Super Yang-Mills Theory

So first these physicists expect us to accept a nonsense word like quark, and now they’re calling their theory Yang-Mills? What silly word are they going to foist on us next?

Umm…Yang and Mills are people.

Chen Ning Yang and Robert Mills were two physicists, famous for being very well treated by the Chinese government and for not being the father of nineteenth century Utilitarianism, respectively.

Has a wife 56 years younger than him

Did not design the Panopticon

In the 1950’s, Yang and Mills were faced with a problem: how to describe the strong nuclear force, the force that holds protons and neutrons in the nuclei of atoms together. At the time, the nature of this force was very mysterious. Nuclear experiments were uncovering new insight about the behavior of the strong force, but those experiments showed that the strong force didn’t behave like the well-understood force of electricity and magnetism. In particular, the strong force seemed to treat neutrons and protons in a related way, almost as if they were two sides of the same particle.

In 1954, Yang and Mills proposed a solution to this problem. In order to do so, they had to suggest something novel: a force that interacts with itself. To understand what that means and why that’s special, let’s discuss a bit about forces.

Each fundamental force can be thought of in terms of a field extending across space and time. The direction and strength of this field in each place determines which way the force pushes. When this field ripples, things that we observe as particles are created, the result of waves in the field. Particles of light, or photons, are waves in the field of the fundamental force of electricity and magnetism.

The electric force attracts charges with opposite sign, and repels charges when they have the same sign. Photons, however, have no charge, so they pass right through electric and magnetic fields. This is what I mean when I say that electricity and magnetism is a force that doesn’t interact with itself.

The strong force is different. Yang and Mills didn’t know this at the time, but we know now that the strong force acts on fundamental particles inside protons and neutrons called quarks, and that quarks come in three colors, unimaginatively named red, blue, and green, while their antiparticles are classified as antired, antiblue, or antigreen. Like all other forces, the strong force gives rise to a particle, in this case called a gluon. Unlike photons, gluons are not neutral! While they have no electric charge, they are affected by the strong force. Each gluon has a color and an anti-color: red/anti-green, blue/anti-red, etc. This means that while the strong force binds quarks together, it also binds itself together as well, keeping it from reaching outside of atoms and affecting the everyday world like electricity does.

Quarks and Gluons inside a Proton

Yang and Mills’ description wasn’t perfect for the strong force (they had two types of charge rather than three) but it was fairly close to how the weak force worked, as other physicists realized in 1956. It was realized much later (in the 70’s) that a modification of Yang and Mills’ proposal worked for the strong force as well. In recognition of their insight, today the names Yang and Mills are attached to any force that interacts with itself.

A Yang-Mills theory, then, is a theory that contains a fundamental force that can interact with itself. This force generates particles (often called force-carrying bosons) which have something like charge or color with respect to the Yang-Mills force. If you remember the definition of a theory, you’ll see that we have everything we need: we have specified a particle (the force-carrying boson) and the ways in which it can interact (specifically, with itself).

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