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Fundamental interaction
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Fundamental interaction

Name of InteractionRelative MagnitudeBehavior
Strong nuclear force10401/r7
Electromagnetic force10381/r2
Weak nuclear force10151/r5 to 1/r7

A fundamental interaction is a mechanism by which particles interact with each other, and which cannot be explained by another more fundamental interaction. Every observed physical phenomenon, from galaxies colliding with each other to quarks jiggling around inside a proton, can thus be explained by these interactions. Because of their fundamental importance, their understanding has occupied the attention of physicists for over half a century, and continues to do so.

Traditionally, physicists have counted four interactions : gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force. They magnitude and behavior varies greatly as can be seen in the table above. Yet, it is strongly believed that three of them are manifestations of a single, more fundamental, interaction. Electromagnetism and the weak nuclear forces have been shown to be two aspects of a single electroweak force. Somewhat more speculatively, the electroweak force and the strong nuclear interaction have been combined using grand unified theories. How to combine the fourth interaction, gravity, with the other three is still a topic of research into quantum gravity.

They are sometimes called "fundamental forces" although many find this terminology misleading because one of them, gravity, is not explained anymore by a "force" in the Newton sense : no "gravitational force" is acting at a distance to cause a body to accelerate (as it has been falsely assumed a century ago in the Newtonian theory of gravitation). Instead, general relativity explains gravity by the curvatures of spacetime (composed of the gravitational time dilation and the curvature of space).

The modern view of the 3 fundamental forces (i.e. all 4 except gravity) is that objects do not directly interact with each other but rather generate a field which effects the behavior of distant objects. From quantum field theory these fields are associated with one or more particles and are believed to be the result of some fundamental symmetries of nature.

Table of contents
1 The interactions
2 Current developments
3 Further reading
4 Related articles

The interactions


Main article : Gravity

Gravity is by far the weakest interaction, but it is the interaction that has the largest range. The term "long range" refers technically to the falling off of the interaction with distance r at a rate equal to 1/r2. Unlike the other interactions, gravity works universally on all matter and energy. Because of its long range, and property of depending only on the mass of objects, and independent of their charge etc., most interactions between objects separated by length scales larger than that of a planet, for example, are predominantly due to gravity.

Because of its long range, gravity is responsible for such large-scale phenomena as the structure of galaxies, hypothetical black holes and the hypothetical expansion of the universe, as well as phenomena closer to everyday experience such as the orbits of planets and falling apples.

Gravitation was the first kind of interaction which was explained by a mathematical theory. Isaac Newton's law of Universal Gravitation was a good approximation of the behaviour of the gravity. In 1916, Albert Einstein published the General Theory of Relativity, a more accurate description of gravity in terms of the geometry of space-time.

An active area of research today involves merging the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics into a more general theory of quantum gravity. It is widely believed that in a theory of quantum gravity, gravity would be mediated by a particle which is known as the graviton. Gravitons are hypothetical particles not yet observed.

Although general relativity appears to present an accurate theory of gravity in the non-quantum mechanical limit, there is a number of alternate theories of gravity. Those under any serious consideration by 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.


Main article: Electromagnetism

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

Electromagnetism is a long-ranged force that is relatively strong, and therefore describes almost all phenomena of our everyday experience -- phenomena ranging all the way from lasers and radios to the structure of atoms and the structure of metals to friction and rainbows.

Electromagnetic phenomena are described at the classical level by Maxwell's equations, known since the latter half of the 19th century. The quantum theory of electromagnetism is known as quantum electrodynamics (QED). In QED, charged particles are understood as exerting forces on each other due to the exchange of photons.

One very curious property of electromagnetism is that the classical theory of electromagnetism arises naturally from the equations of general relativity with the assumption that there is an extra fourth dimension of space. This property is the basis of Kaluza-Klein theories which have been used to formulate a theory of quantum gravity.

Weak nuclear force

Main article: Weak interaction

The weak nuclear force is responsible for some phenomena at the scale of the atomic nucleus, such as beta decay. Electromagnetism and the weak force were theoretically understood to be two aspects of a unified electroweak force - this was the first step toward the unified theory known as the Standard Model. In electroweak theory, the carriers of the weak force are massive gauge bosons called the W and Z bosons. The weak force is an example of a physical theory in which parity is not conserved i.e., which is left-right asymmetric.

Strong nuclear force

Main article: Strong interaction

The strong nuclear force is the force holding together nucleons inside the atomic nucleus. The strong force is independent of electric charge, and holds together, for example, two protons inside the minute volume of a Helium nucleus in spite of their tremendous electromagnetic repulsion.

The quantum theory of the strong force is called quantum chromodynamics or QCD. In QCD, the strong force is carried by particles called gluons and it acts between particles that carry a "color charge", i.e. quarks and gluons. Composite particles such as nucleons or mesons are made up out of quarks.

Current developments

The Standard Model is a unified quantum mechanical theory of three fundamental forces - electromagnetism, weak interactions and strong interactions. Currently, there is no accepted candidate for a theory of quantum gravity. The search for an acceptable theory of quantum gravity, and a quantum mechanical grand unified theory, are important areas of current physics research. Until such a search is successful, the gravitational interaction cannot be considered as a force because it is of a geometrical rather than dynamical nature. Particles are thought to be moving as they do because the curvatures of spacetime direct their movement, and not because they are pushed or pulled by forces resulting from the exchange of gravitons.

An exotic fifth force has been proposed by some physicists from time to time, mostly to explain discrepancies between predicted and measured values of the gravitational constant. As of 2004, all of the experiments which seem to indicate a fifth force have been explainable in terms of experimental errors.

Further reading

Related articles

Isaac Newton, James Maxwell, Albert Einstein, Abdus Salam, Steven Weinberg, Gerardus t'Hooft, David Gross, Edward Witten