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String theory gives physicists reason to believe that particles are 1-dimensional strings because the theory has a purpose - unifying gravity with the gauge theories.

So why is it that it's popular belief that particles are 0-dimensional points? Was there ever a proposed theory of them being like this? And why?

What reason do physicists have to believe that particles are 0-dimensional points as opposed to 1-dimensional strings?

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When you say "particle" do you mean only fundamental particles? –  DanielSank May 8 at 15:47

7 Answers 7

Elementary particles don't really have a shape or a size, these are emergent qualities that stem from interactions between particles. In quantum physics a particle is represented by its quantum state, and if you want to describe that in space you get a wave function which tells us how much of the particle is present at any given point in space. Because there is no theoretical limit for the size of the spatial region where the wavefunction is nonzero you cannot assign a finite size to the particle. You can imagine the particle either as infinitely small (i.e. point like), or just say that the concept of size is not very meaningful.

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Occam's razor suggests that in the simplest explanation is the most probable. Physicists will assume that elementary particles are point-like, until they have evidence to suggest otherwise.

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In the standard model (as in all traditional relativistic quantum field theory), particles are pointlike. All experimentally available facts about microphysics seem to be consistent with the standard model. This is the (fully sufficient) reason for believing that particles in Nature are pointlike.

Pointlike is a technical term that refers to the fact that in the standard model, the Lagrangian is a function of fields at the same point (rather than of integrals over fields in some small neighborhood of this point, described by form factors specifying the ''form'' of the particle).

The main reason why, nevertheless, many physicists speculate that (at much higher resolution) particles might not be pointlike is that there is no known way how to harmonize quantum field theory with gravitational forces, whereas string theory (where particles are stringlike) seems to offer a potential way of doing so. Nobody knows to which extent these speculations will turn out to be correct.

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Elementary particle which you are referring here, does not seem to be what we think. It is neither like the point or string (as far as today is concerned) these theories are valid but up to a certain strength. These particles can be take up any shape but moreover for our convenience we use dots or points to represent. As they are highly active particles and according to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle i think to determine the position and momentum together is not possible, due to which we are not able to determine the shape.

And as far as your question about 1-d and o-d is concerned i think it's vague to ask as if we had known how it looks we would have already made it appear like that instead of dot's and strings. For E.g - a car we know how it looks and we make it. Same way if an elementary particle we had known how it appears then the problem would have been solved.

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doesn't answer the question –  Arnold Neumaier Nov 15 '12 at 15:16

Your question is based on an assumption that the vacuum is empty, and matters (including particles) are things we placed in the empty vacuum. But the Casimir effect shows that the vacuum is not empty but a dynamical medium. This led to an emergence point of view of elementary particles: they are quantized collective motions of the vacuum medium.

In one approach, we regard the vacuum as a collection of qubits. (ie the space is a qubit ocean.) If those qubit form a string-net liquid, then the quantized collective motions of qubits can give rise to photons, electrons, etc. So elementary particles, like photons and electrons, are not elementary in the sense that there are underlying theories, such as the quantum qubit model on lattice, from which they can be derived as an effective approximation (see for example our paper arXiv:hep-th/0302201). Under such an emergence picture, if we examine elementary particles closely, we see the qubits that form the whole space. The question weather elementary particles are point-like or not do not make sense within the emergence approach.

The string-net condensation provides a unified origin for gauge interactions and Fermi statistics: Both elementary gauge bosons (such as photons, gluons) and elementary fermions (such as electrons, quarks) can emerge as quasi-particles in a quantum spin model on lattice if the quantum spin model has a "string-net condensed state" as its ground state. An comparison between the string-net approach and the superstring approach can be found here.

There is a falsifiable prediction from the string-net theory: all fermions (elementary or composite) must carry gauge charges (see our paper cond-mat/0302460). The standard model contain composite fermions that are neutral for $U(1)\times SU(2)\times SU(3)$ gauge theory. So according to the string-net theory, the standard model is incomplete. The correct model should contain extra gauge theory, such as a $Z_2$ gauge theory. So the string-net theory predicts extra discrete gauge theory and new cosmic strings associated with the new discrete gauge theory.

The emergence approach may also produce (linear) quantum gravity from quantum spin models (see our paper arXiv:0907.1203). However, the emergence approach (such as the string-net theory), so far, fail to produce the chiral coupling between the $SU(2)$ weak interaction and the fermions.

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Pointlike and point are entirely different concepts. The planet Jupiter is pointlike to likely 6 or more decimals of precision when studying the dynamical evolution of the Solar system. Does not mean that Jupiter is a point! Just because something behaves pointlike has always meant that we just don't know enough yet. String theory is one theory about a deeper level, there are others.

So I don't think that many physicists actually think that the electron is a point. Its just that you don't need to worry about any structure when working at piddling energies of a 100GeV or less...

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Canonical particles possess an actual radius of hardness, which is determined by the Compton's expression $\lambda_\text{Compton} = \frac{h}{mc}$. One can read more about it here http://inerton.wikidot.com/canonical-particle

Why do particle physicists speculate about point-like particles? It seems to me this is associated with their education; namely, their teachers told them wrong things and implanted an abstract tunnel vision approach to the reality. It is a pity but this is the truth.

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The notion that particles are thought of as point-like simply because thats what has been taught is naive and completely wrong. Thinking of them as point-like is just a simplification because there isn't any evidence to the contrary. –  Brandon Enright Apr 5 '13 at 21:37

protected by Qmechanic Apr 5 '13 at 20:06

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