Particle physics is a branch of physics that studies the elementary constituents of matter and radiation, and the interactions between them. It is also called high energy physics, because many elementary particles do not occur under normal circumstances in nature, but can be created and detected during energetic collisions of other particles, as is done in particle accelerators. Research in this area has produced a long list of particles.
Modern particle physics research is focused on subatomic particles, which have less structure than atoms. These include atomic constituents such as electrons, protons, and neutrons (protons and neutrons are actually composite particles, made up of quarks), particles produced by radiative and scattering processes, such as photons, neutrinos, and muons, as well as a wide range of exotic particles.
Strictly speaking, the term particle is a misnomer because the dynamics of particle physics are governed by quantum mechanics. As such, they exhibit wave-particle duality, displaying particle-like behavior under certain experimental conditions and wave-like behavior in others (more technically they are described by state vectors in a Hilbert space; see quantum field theory). Following the convention of particle physicists, "elementary particles" refer to objects such as electrons and photons, with the understanding that these "particles" display wave-like properties as well.
All the particles and their interactions observed to date can almost be described entirely by a quantum field theory called the Standard Model. The Standard Model has 40 species of elementary particles (24 fermions, 12 vector bosons, and 4 scalar bosons), which can combine to form composite particles, accounting for the hundreds of other species of particles discovered since the 1960s. The Standard Model has been found to agree with almost all the experimental tests conducted to date. However, most particle physicists believe that it is an incomplete description of nature, and that a more fundamental theory awaits discovery. In recent years, measurements of neutrino mass have provided the first experimental deviations from the Standard Model.
Particle physics has had a large impact on the philosophy of science. Some particle physicists adhere to reductionism, a point of view that has been criticized and defended by philosophers and scientists. Part of the debate is described below.
In the 19th century, John Dalton, through his work on stoichiometry, concluded that each element of nature was composed of a single, unique type of particle. Dalton and his contemporaries believed these were the fundamental particles of nature and thus named them atoms, after the Greek word atomos, meaning "indivisible". However, near the end of the century, physicists discovered that atoms were not, in fact, the fundamental particles of nature, but conglomerates of even smaller particles. The early 20th century explorations of nuclear physics and quantum physics culminated in proofs of nuclear fission in 1939 by Lise Meitner (based on experiments by Otto Hahn), and nuclear fusion by Hans Bethe in the same year. These discoveries gave rise to an active industry of generating one atom from another, even rendering possible (although not profitable) the transmutation of lead into gold. They also led to the development of nuclear weapons. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a bewildering variety of particles were found in scattering experiments. This was referred to as the "particle zoo". This term was deprecated after the formulation of the Standard Model during the 1970s in which the large number of particles was explained as combinations of a (relatively) small number of fundamental particles.
Many other particle accelerators exist.
The techniques required to do modern experimental particle physics are quite varied and complex, constituting a subspecialty nearly completely distinct from the theoretical side of the field. See Experimental particle physics for a partial list of the ideas required for such experiments.
Another major effort is in model building where model builders develop ideas for what physics may lie beyond the standard model (at higher energies or smaller distances). This work is often motivated by the hierarchy problem and is constrained by existing experimental data. It may involve work on supersymmetry, alternatives to the Higgs mechanism, extra spatial dimensions (such as the Randall-Sundrum models), Preon theory, combinations of these, or other ideas.
A third major effort in theoretical particle physics is string theory. String theorists attempt to construct a unified description of quantum mechanics and general relativity by building a theory based on small strings, and branes rather than particles. If the theory is successful, it may be considered a "Theory of Everything".
There are also other areas of work in theoretical particle physics ranging from particle cosmology to loop quantum gravity.
This division of efforts in particle physics is reflected in the names of categories on the preprint archive : hep-th (theory), hep-ph (phenomenology), hep-ex (experiments), hep-lat (lattice gauge theory).
Much of the efforts to find this new physics are focused on new collider experiments. A (relatively) near term goal is the completion of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in 2008 which will continue the search for the Higgs boson, supersymmetric particles, and other new physics. An intermediate goal is the construction of the International Linear Collider (ILC) which will complement the LHC by allowing more precise measurements of the properties of newly found particles. A decision for the technology of the ILC has been taken in August 2004, but the site has still to be agreed upon.
Additionally, there are important non-collider experiments which also attempt to find and understand physics beyond the standard model. One important non-collider effort is the determination of the neutrino masses since these masses may arise from neutrinos mixing with very heavy particles. In addition, cosmological observations provide many useful constraints on the dark matter, although it may be impossible to determine the exact nature of the dark matter without the colliders. Finally, lower bounds on the very long lifetime of the proton put constraints on Grand Unification Theories at energy scales much higher than collider experiments will be able to probe any time soon.