Why we’re teaching the Standard Model all wrong

In any description if the Standard Model of Particle Physics, from the serious graduate-level lecture course to the jolly outreach chat for Joe Public, you pretty soon come up against a graphic like this.

“Particles of the Standard Model”

It appears on mugs and on T shirts, on posters and on websites. The colours vary, and sometimes bosons are included. It may be – somewhat pretentiously – described as “the new periodic table”. We’ve all seen it many times. Lots of us have used it – I have myself.

And it’s wrong.

Fundamentally wrong. And we’ve known about it since the 1990’s.

The problem lies with the bottom row: the neutrinos. They are shown as the electron, mu and tau neutrinos, matching the charged leptons.

But what is the electron neutrino? It does not exist – or at least if it does exist, it cannot claim to be a ‘particle’. It does not have a mass. An electron neutrino state is not a solution of the Schrödinger equation: it oscillates between the 3 flavours. Anything that changes its nature when left to itself, without any interaction from other particles, doesn’t deserve to be called an ‘elementary particle’.

That this changing nature happened was a shattering discovery at the time, but now it’s been firmly established over 20 years of careful measurement of these oscillations: from solar neutrinos, atmospheric neutrinos, reactors, sources and neutrino beams.

There are three neutrinos. Call them 1, 2 and 3. They do have definite masses (even if we don’t know what they are) and they do give solutions of the Schrödinger equation: a type 1 neutrino stays a type 1 neutrino until and unless it interacts, likewise 2 stays 2 and 3 stays 3.

So what is an ‘electron neutrino’? Well, when a W particle couples to an electron, it couples to a specific mixture of ν1, ν2, and ν3, That specific mixture is called νe. The muon and tau are similar. Before the 1990s, when the the only information we had about neutrinos came from their W interactions, we only ever met neutrinos in these combinations so it made sense to use them. And they have proved a useful concept over the years. But now we know more about their behaviour – even though that is only how they vary with time – we know that the 1-2-3 states are the fundamental ones.

By way of an analogy: the 1-2-3 states are like 3 notes, say C, E and G, on a piano. Before the 1990s our pianist would only play them in chords: CE, EG and CG (the major third, the minor third and the fifth, but this analogy is getting out of hand…) As we only ever met them in these combinations we assumed that these were the only combinations they ever occurred in which made them fundamental. Now we have a more flexible pianist and know that this is not the case.

We have to make this change if we are going to be consistent between the quarks in the top half of the graphic and the leptons in the bottom. When the W interacts with a u quark it couples to a mixture of d, s and b. Mostly d, it is true, but with a bit of the others. We write d’=Uudd+Uuss+Uubb and introduce the CKM matrix or the Cabibbo angle. But we don’t put d’ in the “periodic table”. That’s because the d quark, the mass eigenstate, leads a vigorous social life interacting with gluons and photons as well as Ws, and it does so as the d quark, not as the d’ mixture. This is all obvious. So we have to treat the neutrinos in the same way.

So if you are a bright annoying student who likes to ask their teacher tough questions (or vice versa), when you’re presented with the WRONG graphic, ask innocently “Why are there lepton number oscillations among the neutral leptons but not between the charged leptons?”, and retreat to a safe distance. There is no good answer if you start from the WRONG graphic. If you start from the RIGHT graphic then the question is trivial: there are no oscillations between the 1-2-3 neutrinos any more than there are between e, mu and tau, or u, c, and t. If you happen to start with a state which is a mixture of the 3 then of course you need to consider the quantum interference effects, for the νe mixture just as you do for the d’ quark state (though the effects play out rather differently).

So don’t use the WRONG Standard model graphic. Change those subscripts on the bottom row, and rejoice in the satisfaction of being right. At least until somebody shows that neutrinos are Majorana particles and we have to re-think the whole thing…