Virtual particle

From Academic Kids

In the description of the interaction between elementary particles in quantum field theory, a virtual particle is a temporary elementary particle, used to describe an intermediate stage in the interaction. A virtual particle is never the end result of such a process. Using the language of Feynman diagrams, a virtual particle is associated with the internal lines of the diagrams, the so-called propagators. These virtual particles are responsible for the interactions of the external particles (external legs of the diagram). For example, the electromagnetic interaction occurs due to the exchange of virtual photons.

Pairs

Virtual particles are often popularly described as coming in pairs, a particle and antiparticle, which can be of any kind. These pairs exist for an extremely short time, and mutually annihilate in short order. In some cases, however, it is possible to boost the pair apart using external energy so that they avoid annihilation and become real particles. This is one way of describing the process by which black holes evaporate.

The restriction to particle-antiparticle pairs is actually only necessary if the particles in question carry a conserved quantity, such as electric charge, which is not present in the initial or final state. Otherwise, other situations can arise. For instance, the beta decay of a neutron can happen through the emission of a single virtual, negatively charged W particle that almost immediately decays into a real electron and antineutrino; the neutron turns into a proton when it emits the W particle. The evaporation of a black hole is a process dominated by photons, which are their own antiparticles and are uncharged.

History

Paul Dirac was the first to propose that empty space (the vacuum) can be visualized as consisting of a sea of virtual electron-positron pairs that can only be released or separated when sufficient energy is made available.

General subfields within physics

Classical mechanics | Condensed matter physics | Continuum mechanics | Electromagnetism | General relativity | Particle physics | Quantum field theory | Quantum mechanics | Solid state physics | Special relativity | Statistical mechanics | Thermodynamics

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