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In my physics textbook (and in popular science culture) it is stated that there are four fundamental forces: electromagnetism, strong, weak, and gravity.

But Wikipedia tells me that there is a unified description of electromagnetism and the weak force (electroweak interaction), and that this model is generally accepted in a way that eludes e.g. Grand Unified Theories which would unify the three non-gravity forces.

So why don't we say that there are three fundamental forces instead?

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marked as duplicate by user191954, John Rennie gravity Oct 30 '18 at 12:29

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

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    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Why are there only four fundamental interactions of nature? $\endgroup$ – user191954 Oct 30 '18 at 7:54
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    $\begingroup$ @DanYand Regarding the edit, that makes the question a duplicate of physics.stackexchange.com/q/234304 From that question, "should all books teaching four fundamental forces change to three with third being Electroweak?" $\endgroup$ – user191954 Jan 21 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Chair Yes, that looks like a better match. Can the link be switched to point to that one instead? $\endgroup$ – Chiral Anomaly Jan 21 at 16:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Chair I see the second link now. Sorry if it was already there and I just overlooked it. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – Chiral Anomaly Jan 21 at 17:03
  • $\begingroup$ @DanYand Nah, you didn't overlook it. The revision history of the post shows that QMechanic edited the duplicate list of this post after my comment regarding that post. $\endgroup$ – user191954 Jan 22 at 4:21
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This is one of my favorite subjects, so I'll add some clarification about what we really mean when we way that the EM and weak forces are "unified".

In the Standard Model of particle physics, which is part of the foundation for our present understanding of nature, there are three distinct force fields (physicists call them gauge fields).

  • One corresponds to the strong force that binds quarks into protons and neutrons. In the technical literature, this one is sometimes denoted $SU(3)$.
  • The other two gauge fields are the ones relevant to your question. In the technical literature, these two gauge fields are described by the cryptic symbols $SU(2)_L$ and $U(1)_Y$, respectively, and I won't try to invent better names for them here. The important point is that the familiar EM force is a special mixture of $SU(2)_L$ and $U(1)_Y$, and the remainder (a different mixture) is what we call the weak force.

In the Standard Model, each of these three force fields — namely $SU(3)$, $SU(2)_L$, and $U(1)_Y$, couples to matter with a different strength than the others. That's why they are considered to be three distinct fields, not really unified in the strictest sense. However, as indicated in Aaron Stevens' more-concise answer, at a low enough temperatures (what we would call "normal" temperatures today) the famous Higgs field causes the $SU(2)_L$ and $U(1)_Y$ gauge fields to mix with each other, resulting in two different mixtures that we experience as the long-range electromagnetic force and the very-short-range weak force.

The point of this long monologue is to clarify what "unified" really means in this context. The EM and weak forces are two different mixtures of the more-fundamental $SU(2)_L$ and $U(1)_Y$ fields. So there are still four fundamental force fields in our current understanding of modern physics: the strong force $SU(3)$, the one called $SU(2)_L$, the one called $U(1)_Y$, and gravity. (The Standard Model of particle physics does not include gravity.)

On the other hand, we do have indirect theoretical reasons to suspect that $SU(3)$, $SU(2)_L$, and $U(1)_Y$ really are unified in the strict sense of being different parts of a single field with a single coupling strength to matter. We do not yet know exactly how to implement this strict form of unification theoretically. Even if the idea is correct, this higher symmetry would only be evident at even higher temperatures than the ones we would need to "un-mix" $SU(2)_L$ and $U(1)_Y$.

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  • $\begingroup$ You described what happens with this gauge fields at low temperatures, but you didn't specify what happens at higher temperatures as distinction. Any chance you could add that description? I've been really curious about this for a while. Also, any chance you know of any decent material for reading up about this that's geared towards explaining the concepts more oriented towards beginners? $\endgroup$ – TheEnvironmentalist Oct 30 '18 at 6:45
  • $\begingroup$ +1, this is the only good answer to this question. The unification in "grand unification" has nothing to do with the unification in "electroweak unification". Under any reasonable counting, there are 4 forces in the SM both before and after the electroweak phase transition. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Oct 30 '18 at 11:23
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    $\begingroup$ @TheEnvironmentalist - Regarding exactly what happens at higher temperatures, I was about to write something like "all quarks and leptons effectively become massless..." But I've been reviewing this carefully, and now I'm not so sure. (The paper arxiv.org/abs/hep-ph/9611462 is making me think twice.) I still have a lot to learn! So I guess I'm not prepared to give you a clear answer to that question. Regarding sources that are geared toward beginners, I'm still looking for a good one. I mean, I really am actively looking. If I find a good one, I'll post another comment. $\endgroup$ – Chiral Anomaly Nov 2 '18 at 1:20
  • $\begingroup$ @knzhou Do you mean three forces, since gravity isn't included in the SM? $\endgroup$ – tparker Nov 11 '18 at 4:30
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I would say it's because of history, as each of the four forces were discovered as separate forces.

I will also say it's due to how we experience them today. They are currently four separate forces. They become unified at very large energies/temperatures, which were present very soon after the big bang. But once the universe cooled the electroweak force split into two forces.

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enter image description here

Mouseover: "Of these four forces there's one of them that we don't really understand." "Is it the weak force or the strong--" "It's gravity."

The xkcd comic above is available under a creative commons license.

Keep in mind that saying there are four fundamental forces is basically a heuristic tool to help teach a complicated reality. One of many reasonable ways of defining a force operationally for purposes of counting how many fundamental forces there are in layman's level descriptions of science is to define a force as one that counts as separate if it is associated with a particular type of gauge boson that couples to a particular kind of charge.

enter image description here

Via Wikipedia

Hence, we have: (1) the electromagnetic force associated with photons which couple to electric charge, (2) the weak force associated with the massive W and Z bosons which couple to weak isospin, and (3) the strong force associated with gluons which couple to color charge. And, many theories of quantum gravity associate (4) gravity with a hypothetical gauge boson known as a graviton which couples to a charge equal to a particle's total mass-energy.

Even though one can talk about an electroweak interaction having a common source in theory, phenomenologically, it is easy to distinguish between the strong, long range, photon mediated component of that interaction, and the weak, short range W and Z boson mediated component of that interaction.

This definition, for example, naturally treats the electrical force and magnetism as unified (because both involve interactions of electrically charged particles via photons), while treating forces commonly thought of as separate as separate.

This definition also works for the weak force, because while it has three kinds of gauge bosons (the W+, the W- and the Z), all three couple to the same "charge" (i.e. weak isospin) with the same coupling constant, and are also similar in that they are all massive and short lived.

Indeed, the harder point for most people is really to explain why W bosons are gauge bosons whose interactions count as forces, despite the fact that these interactions are very unlike the paradigm of massless photon/gluon/graviton mediated interactions, which look much more like what we intuitively think of as forces (with the twist that gluons and gravitons, unlike photons, interact with each other as well as appropriately charged fermions). But, your question indicates that you aren't struggling with that question and mathematically, the weak interaction closely resembles the other Standard Model forces.

Other questions and answers have addressed why the Higgs boson is not a gauge boson, and the Higgs field don't count as a force, even though this is a fundamental boson and a fundamental field of the Standard Model (which couples in proportion to a fundamental particle's rest mass).

There Could Someday Be More Or Less Than Four Fundamental Forces

We could discover additional fundamental forces someday, but so far we haven't found convincing evidence that they exist. Many beyond the Standard Model theories propose additional fundamental forces (e.g. a new force that only couples to dark matter mediated by a massive "dark photon").

It also might take a new field and/or boson, even if it isn't a force, to explain neutrino masses, which aren't a good fit for the Standard Model Higgs mechanism and aren't currently well understood. Neutrino masses are the only significant extension the Standard Model has seen since it was formulated.

Then again, we could also, for example, discover that gravity is emergent from one or more of the Standard Model forces, or that all of the Standard Model forces have a common source in some in some deeper theory (such as a GUT or a TOE), thus reducing the number of truly fundamental forces.

A Historical Footnote

History does play a part as well.

Gravity was formulated as force, with a form that Maxwell's equations would mimic three centuries later, in 1687 by Newton, and in so doing unified the force governing the movement of the planets and the force that makes objects fall to the ground. Its general relativistic extension was proposed by Einstein by 1915, more than a century ago. Ironically, despite being the oldest of the mathematically formulated fundamental forces, we understand it less well today than we do the three fundamental forces of the Standard Model. It is the only force for which we do not have a viable quantum formulation, even though we have come tantalizing close to doing so to the point where we can describe a hypothetical graviton's properties almost completely, but can't calculate with this theory.

The scientific investigation of electricity and magnetism was well under way in the 17th century, the unification of electricity and magnetism was starting to emerge in the 18th century and refined in the decades the followed, Maxwell unified optics and electromagnetism in the 1860s, Maxwell and Heaviside had fully formulated Maxwell's equations of classical electromagnetism by the late 1800s, Einstein proposed the existence of the photon in 1905 which was confirmed by the 1920s, and quantum electrodynamics (the quantum version of electromagnetism) was developed starting in the 1920s and was complete before the Nobel Prize was awarded for discovering it in 1965.

Beta decay (which is caused by the weak interaction) wasn't discovered until 1896 and wasn't even conceived of as a force until Fermi came up with (an inaccurate) description of it as a contact force in 1933. An accurate description of the weak force as part of a comprehensive electroweak interaction wasn't devised until 1968, and the W and Z boson weren't directly confirmed to exist until 1983. Given that this distinctive phenomena was unified theoretically with electromagnetism just 50 years ago, it is unsurprisingly treated as something different from electromagnetism even though it is intimately related to it.

The strong force, meanwhile, wasn't understood in any meaningful fashion until the 1970s. Gluons weren't hypothesized until 1962, color charge wasn't really formulated as a concept until 1973, and the quark-gluon model wasn't confirmed experimentally until experiments confirming it were conducted in 1978 (the same year that the term "quark" was coined) and 1979. The last of the quarks to be discovered (the top quark) wasn't experimentally confirmed to exist until 1995.

The concepts of the Higgs boson and Higgs field were proposed from 1960 to 1972, and confirmed experimentally in 2012.

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First of all lets talk about unification of two forces: electromagnetic force and the weak force.

Before unification we didn't know that they were one thing.Since we have come into existence way too after bigbang we observed two forces : electromagnetic force and the weak force rather than electroweak force which are like the daughter cells of the parent cell:electroweak force

Like @Aaron stevens has mentioned, it's because of history we have four forces.If people find what they call Theory of everything,then you could say that everything is one thing,but you would still be studying that there are four fundamental forces.

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The answers cover the historical reason for fundamental forces. I would like to clear up the following.

In the framework of field theoretical models for particle physics data, where the claim of four fundamental forces is made, mostly all calculations from the theoretical models ( which are described by the other answers) to compare with data, are made through the use of Feynman diagrams..

In this iconic representation of the integrals that have to be calculated, each vertex exchanges virtual particles , transferring a force, dp/dt, and any virtual particle transmits a force .

exchanges

For example electron positron annihilation happens with the virtual electron transferring the force. The fundamental carrier of the force though, to separate it out of all the other possibilities, is the first one, which exchanges a photon. Photons, gluons and the W and Z are the gauge bosons and define the first order exchanges characterizing the interactions in the SU(3)xSU(2)xU(1) standard model of particle physics..

These gauge bosons are inherent in the mathematical formulation of the theory and characterize it, in one to one correspondance with the fundamental forces. That is why the discovery of the Z and W were important, they confirmed this mathematical model as much as the discovery of the Higgs later. There may come other gauge theories in the future which will have their own gauge bosons and thus increase the fundamental forces, but it is a waiting game for the data. That is why the graviton is posited, it is the gauge boson of gravity, once gravity is definitively ( and not effectively) quantized.

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