Physics: What Does It Take to Discover a Particle?

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Course DatesLengthMeeting TimesStatusFormatInstructor(s)CRN
July 19, 2021 - August 11, 20217/19 - 8/113 WeeksOnlineOpenOnlineDaniel Li

Course Description

Our world is composed of seemingly-invisible particles at every scale imaginable. We can look at ourselves and ask, "What are we made of?" We might answer that we're made of "cells" that have a molecular structure built upon elements such as carbon or iron. But what if we dig deeper? We find that those elements are made from protons, neutrons and electrons! While we can hold a piece of metal and claim that it's made of iron, we aren't able to do so with protons for they are too small. But, even protons are made up of smaller constituents known as quarks, which are "held" together by gluons. How do physicists know that such particles exist when we cannot hold them in our hands or see them with our eyes? This course will explore the research questions and experimental concepts that led to the discovery of particles such as the proton and the quark.

Students in this course will learn to view the physical world as a physicist and be able to ask the "right" questions to lead them to the discovery of a particle. Students will become familiar with the concept of the 'Standard Model', which is the recipe book of physics that takes the particles as ingredients to construct the world as we see it! We will begin by exploring how protons, neutrons and electrons were discovered and what new concepts were introduced in discovering them. Then, we will transition into a discussion of the forces that act on these different particles allowing them to interact. This will lead into the discovery of quarks, which will be accompanied by a formal introduction to the Standard Model. Finally, we will look at the Large Hadron Collider's discovery of the Higgs boson as an example of modern particle physics. By going through the timeline of major particle physics discoveries, students will become familiar with the history of physics as well as with the history of technological innovation. The course material will primarily be reading and students will participate in Socratic discussions based on the reading. Student evaluation will be made through written reflections on the course material as well as with a presentation that will require independent research utilizing the learned knowledge of technical terms within particle physics. Overall, this course will de-emphasize the mathematics behind particle physics and focus on the concepts.

By the end of the course, students should be able to explain what the Standard Model is and why it is considered the defining model of particle physics based on experimental evidence. By taking this course, students will be made aware of the current state of particle physics research and what areas of discovery are still available. For those interested in pursuing physics as a major, this course will provide a foundation for beginning research in particle physics.

Prerequisites: The recommended prerequisites for this course include an introductory course in either chemistry or physics. Students should be familiar with the atomic model with a nucleus and orbiting electrons. It is beneficial to have familiarity with classical mechanics and electrodynamics to further appreciate concepts such as energy and forces, but is not necessary for understanding the course material at face value.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEPI0928

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences for students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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