Quantum Physics


The Good Vibrations of Quantum Field Theories

It’s not unusual for me to receive mail questioning quantum mechanics and special relativity. I’ll admit, these ideas can sound a bit crazy. For some people, these ideas are simply too counterintuitive to accept. Occasionally, I can convince a correspondent that they accurately describe the universe. But I have some bad news for my pen pals: physicists no longer think about the universe in these simple terms. Our experiments have long shown the subatomic realm to be far more mind-blowing than those modestly-perplexing ideas. It has been nearly a century after all. In the words of my teenage daughter, those ideas are soooooooo 1920s.

Quantum mechanics tells us that an electron is both a particle and a wave and you can never be certain what it will do. Relativity tells us that clocks aren’t absolute, distances depend on the observer, and that energy can be converted into matter and back again. These ideas are still correct, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg.

Physicists now use a class of theories called quantum field theories, or QFTs, which were first postulated in the late 1920s and developed over the following decades. QFTs are intriguing, but they take some getting used to. To start, let’s think only about electrons. Everywhere in the universe there is a field called the electron field. A physical electron isn’t the field, but rather a localized vibration in the field. In fact, every electron in the universe is a similar localized vibration of that single field.

Electrons aren’t the only particles to consist of localized vibrations of a field; all particles do. There is a photon field, an up quark field, a gluon field, a muon field; indeed there is a field for every known particle. And, for all of them, the thing that we visualize as a particle is just a localized vibration of that field. Even the recently discovered Higgs boson is like this. The Higgs field interacts with particles and gives them their mass, but it is hard to observe this field directly. Instead, we supply energy to the field in particle collisions and cause it to vibrate. When we say “we’ve discovered the Higgs boson,” you should think “we’ve caused the Higgs field to vibrate and observed the vibrations.”

This idea gives an entirely different view of how the subatomic world works. Spanning all of space are a great variety of different fields that exist everywhere, just like how a certain spot can simultaneously have a smell, a sound, and a color. What we think of as a particle is simply a vibration of its associated field.

This has significant consequences on how we think about how particles interact. For instance, consider a simple process whereby two electrons are fired at one another and are scattered. In the quasi-classical view of scattering, one electron emits a photon and then recoils. The photon travels to the other electron, which also recoils. This is like having two people in boats and having one of them throw a sack to the other—the thrower’s boat moves in response to the mass of the sack, as does the catcher’s boat.


A traditional Feynman diagram (top) and the same subatomic process using quantum field thinking (bottom). On the left, a photon field is vibrating and the quark and gluon fields are quiescent. When the photon makes a quark and antiquark pair, the quark field is vibrating while the other two fields have no excitation. Finally, when the quark and antiquark combine to make a gluon, only the gluon field has a vibration.

In the QFT approach, a vibration in the electron field induces a vibration in the photon field. The photon field vibration transports energy and momentum to another electron vibration and is absorbed.

In the well-known process where a photon converts into an electron and an antimatter electron, the photon field vibrations are transferred to the electron field and two sets of vibrations are set up—one consistent with an electron vibration and the other consistent with the antimatter electron.

This idea of fields and vibrations explains how the universe works at a deep and fundamental level. These fields span all of space. Some fields can “see” other fields, while being blind to others. The photon field can interact with the fields of charged particles but cannot see gluon or neutrino fields. On the other hand, a photon can interact indirectly with the gluon field, first by making quark vibrations which then make gluon vibrations. It’s kind of like when two quarrelling siblings use a third to pass messages.

Quantum fields are really a mind-bending way of thinking. Everything—and I mean everything—is just a consequence of many infinitely-large fields vibrating. The entire universe is made of fields playing a vast, subatomic symphony. Physicsts are trying to understand the melody.

Go Deeper
Author’s picks for further reading

QED. Richard P. Feynman.

The Particle at the End of the Universe. Sean Carroll.

Tell us what you think on Twitter, Facebook, or email.


Don Lincoln

    Don Lincoln is a senior experimental particle physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and an adjunct professor at the University of Notre Dame. He splits his research time between Fermilab and the CERN laboratory, just outside Geneva, Switzerland. He has coauthored more than 500 scientific papers on subjects from microscopic black holes and extra dimensions to the elusive Higgs boson. When Don isn’t doing physics research, he spends his time sharing the fantastic world of science with anyone who will listen. He has given public lectures on three continents and has authored many magazine articles, YouTube videos and columns in the online periodical Fermilab Today. His book "The Quantum Frontier" tells the tale of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s preeminent particle accelerator, while his other book "Understanding the Universe" introduces the armchair scientist to particle physics and cosmology and tells how the two fields are intertwined.

    • Todd

      The implicate order of David Bohm anyone?

    • Erik Bosma

      there are only 3 particles really understood by men – allegory, simile and metaphor.

      • Jerdna Friedemann

        Can you expand that thought? Why these 3?

    • Asher Kirschbaum

      This is a great introduction to Quantum Field Theory! I am a fan of Quantum Field Theory, because it avoids the weirdness of Quantum Mechanics. In my opinion, it is the only theory that makes sense. I have been hooked on QFT after reading “Fields of Color: The theory that escaped Einstein” by Rodney Brooks. Introduction to his book: http://www.quantum-field-theory.net. You should check it out!

      • https://plus.google.com/u/0/114865618166480775623/posts Russ Abbott

        I agree. In fact, I would very much like to hear Don’s impression of “Fields of Color.”

    • http://wokenmind.com/ Gerard L Bryan

      Nice simple explanation there. Good to see it. Too often science likes to use language that is difficult to understand so as to keep a certain air of higher importance about their field of study. It doesn’t matter the language used by science, religion, spiritual teachers, metaphysicians etc, they all attempt to explain the exact same complete process that is at work in the universe. The visible observable is only that which we perceive with our sensory equipment, its only a shadow of the enormity of what’s really there, and not there, which is more fascinating actually. All that is comes from nothing. The ancient spiritual teachers of India and the Far East knew this. Science is playing catch up.

    • John Anderson

      QFT is soooo 1940s :Joke_off. Don is making a great step forward for public
      outreach. Sean Carroll also recently
      endorsed this in a talk at Fermilab. http://www.symmetrymagazine.org/article/july-2013/real-talk-everything-is-made-of-fields?email_issue=275

      Books: Inward Bound
      by Abraham Pais,

      QFT and the Men Who Made It by Silvan Schweber.

      Deep Down Things by Bruce Schumm.

    • https://plus.google.com/u/0/114865618166480775623/posts Russ Abbott

      Would you clarify an issue. If all electrons are in a single electron field, where the repulsive forces between them? And even more to the point how do they get there? That is, if an electron is an excitation in the electron field, how does one distinguish one electron from another sufficiently to know that there is a repulsive force between them?


    • Erik Bosma

      I’m beginning to think that all explanations are metaphorical and reality is either just an illusion or we are incapable of perceiving much of it. So if field theory works for you then go for it. At one time our metaphors included spirits and gods, etc. Who knows what will work for us in the future?

    • A.

      Hello there! Correct me if I’m wrong. So Quantum Field theory is a rival to Quantum Mechanics, and Quantum Field theory makes more sense, but is more recent. Also, does Quantum Field theory mean that an electron is really made by an electron field vibrating?



      After re-reading Hawking’s “A Brief History of
      Time” I’ve got it all figured out.

      I’ve decided that the rate of time is constant. Space itself is the fundamental unified field,
      and is a flowing medium. At distance
      equals zero from the event horizon of black holes space flows at the speed of
      light (the terminal velocity of the medium) into the center. Particle motion itself slows down, at right
      angles to the direction of travel, or in the dense regions of space (same difference because the densest regions
      have maximum flow) causing the illusion of time dilation. Particle motion stops at the speed of light
      (maximum density) because the Lorentz contractions cause the particles to
      flatten completely in the direction of travel, becoming two dimensional. All fundamental particles are the miniature black
      holes created in the early moments of the big bang. All of the fundamental massless field spins
      are the signature black body radiation emanating from these individual flavors
      of internally stabilized black hole formations.
      Gravity doesn’t fit into quantum mechanics definitions, because gravity
      is not a field, but a symptom of space itself flowing into all matter,
      causing distance between all materialistic bodies to decrease. Apparent gravitational lensing is literal
      lensing caused by density changes in the flowing medium of space itself. There is no spectral separation because
      photons of any frequency propagate through a massless medium at the same rate.

      Space is the zero sum field of equilibrium and is both the
      sync and source of all other fields. Thus
      all fields arise in pairs, of equal and opposite energy.

      Using the electro-magnetic field as an example; if a single
      photon is the only thing in a universe it is a massless hole in space of definite
      energies in both the electric field and the magnetic field at right angles to
      each other. Before it exists, there is
      no time because space is at equilibrium.
      Nothing is flowing, and nothing is measurable. All of space is at the same density everywhere,
      existing only as potential (I call this eternity). The instant our photon comes in to existence
      (little bang) space begins to flow from distance equal zero from the event to
      distance equals infinity. This is also
      the beginning of time because we can now measure space against itself, and
      every point in space is different from every other point in speed and direction. When measuring anything against itself, we
      measure it through time. Space returns
      to its natural state of equilibrium by filling this hole in space from the
      center and distributing the energy outward, now a tear in space, in a single spherical
      pulse of electro-magnetic radiation diminishing its energy through time. At time equal infinity the electro-magnetic
      energy is reduced to zero, returning space to the original equilibrium. The photon is gone, time ends, and eternity
      awaits any other event.

      Now consider a single point source electric charge, a single
      electron. The electron radiates its
      negative electric field. But wait! Where is the equal and opposite field energy. By definition, it must exist. We know that an electric charge in motion
      causes a circulation in the magnetic field at a right angle to the direction of
      travel in our current universe. However,
      our electron exists in the universe by itself, so where is the magnetic field. From time equal zero, as the electric field radiates
      in an ever expanding sphere at the speed of light, the associated magnetic
      field exists only on the edge of the growing sphere, and charges in energy
      equal to the overall energy of the growing electric field. The source of this energy is space itself
      flowing in toward the center of the point source charge transforming into the
      electro-magnetic fields. As the electric
      field flows outward it presses against the magnetic field causing back pressure
      from all direction of equal force, thus motion of the point source charge
      remains zero.

      Applying particle field theory to the growing electrical
      field, these electrical field particles cannot cause circulation to the
      magnetic field because of adjacent field particles counter balancing the forces
      of circulation, but adding energy nonetheless.
      This magnetic field therefore is mono-polar in nature (neither north nor
      south). Let’s call it “west” for a negative
      electric charge and “east” for a positive electric charge keeping to the common

      Now let’s allow for two electrons to come in to existence simultaneously,
      some distance apart. At time equal zero;
      these two point sources will have relative motion toward one another
      (gravitational illusion), because space is flowing into each of them, thus
      diminishing distance. Until the spheres
      grow large enough for the magnetic fields to come in contact with one another
      there is actually no real motion of either particle. They are remaining stationary within their
      own spheres of backpressure at equilibrium.
      Both particles are just being carried along with the point of space in which
      they originated (dark matter).

      At some point in time, each sphere grows large enough to
      come in contact with the other sphere at some point in space. Each sphere now has a point on their surface at
      twice the “west” magnetic field energy, disrupting the backpressure equilibrium
      imparting real motion in space. As each
      sphere continues to grow, this point on each sphere grows as a circle of more
      intense “west” magnetic field energy, increasing the speed of real motion
      caused by the increasing disruption of backpressure equilibriums. Eventually, the real motion in the opposite
      direction of the relative motion will reduce apparent motion to zero. However, the spheres will continue to grow,
      so the apparent motion changes in the same direction as real motion and
      continues to increase in speed.

      In a universe containing two positrons instead of electrons,
      the electric fields are now positive, the magnetic fields are “east” in nature. The results of real, relative, and apparent
      motion are the same.

      Now let’s look at a universe replacing only one charge with
      its opposite. When the spheres grow to
      the point at which they come in contact what happens? A single point on each sphere now results in equal
      and opposite field energies of “west” and “east” magnetism as well as positive
      and negative electricity that cancel and change back into space (dark
      energy). New space is actually being
      returned to the universe at this point.
      This causes the relative motion to decrease in speed by injecting new
      space between the original points of space in which the particles originated. The point of contact on each sphere grows to
      the circle of new space. The
      backpressure equilibriums of each sphere however causes apparent and real
      motion toward the new space overcoming the inverse relative motion (dark energy)
      in runaway fashion until the distance between the particles becomes zero and
      they annihilate each other. Thus
      returning the universe to its natural state of equilibrium as the remainder of the
      electro-magnetic fields dissipate again at time equal infinity, similar to the
      original photon example this theory presented.

      All of the other materialistic particles in the standard
      quantum model obey these same laws.

      All we need now is a mathematician grad student willing to
      re-write all of the current particle physics equations of quantum mechanics
      without prejudice. This will result in a
      grand unified ætheral theory of the universe, along the lines of Hendrik
      Lorentz’s train of thought I imagine he had when he came up with the exact same
      transformation equations Einstein did.


    • b

      In QED of Feynman I have read nowere that photons and electons are localized vibrations of a field.

    • Nereida Llonch

      QUESTION: Two Slit Experiment:

      Could the “observer” cause an energy field with its electrical currents OR with the beeping alert sound it makes (sound waves) when the particle enters the top slit causing it to change patterns?

      If the observer is human, there is still a quantum impact of energy. Is it not a reaction then to external force/energy cause the results to change?

    • ted wagner

      Why is a given field inclined to vibrate in the first place? If we speaking of an electron field, why does it become excited an exhibit electron behavior?

      • John F. Hendry

        It felt like it;-) Consciousness has Mass so it’s really not funny and far too real for most people to accept on the deep level physics is looking at with modern science. Easier to cut out your heart and watch it beat without going into shock. But it can be done, it just takes time and practice. Fear is a “voice” creating “tones” in phase with phosphate and the electron phase of Mass oscillation.

        But failing to establish an inertial frame of reference is hiding real inertial frame based time relative to space and therefore “information frames” needed to see the parts are all convoluted. In the end you must accept “emotions” are connected to (tonal) space, and space is a product of time.

    • Steve Richardson

      And life is simply a self sustaining vibration

      • John F. Hendry

        Don’t let the experts hear you talk like that….. they want to understand the weak force first. Oh well…. too late.
        “Relative to the Observer all other Observers are behind it in time.”

    • Eric Stilson

      For some time now there seems to have been the need for a bridge between the somewhat restrictive academic mathmatical purety or scientific discussion of proto-physical Quantum theory (including field theory) and the more metaphysical world of thought experimentation and discussion. The latter being less restrictive sans academic scrutiny and sanctions in daring to speculate beyond the current acdemically acceptable line. For better or worse, I have attempted that challange with a first book titled O.C.R. Observer Created Reality, now available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Judge for yourself. O.C.R. Observer Created Reality

      Authored by Eric Lyle Stilson

      List Price: $14.95

      6″ x 9″ (15.24 x 22.86 cm)
      Black & White on White paper
      196 pages

      ISBN-13: 978-1483989679 (CreateSpace-Assigned)
      ISBN-10: 1483989674
      LCCN: 2013906516
      BISAC: Body, Mind & Spirit / Inspiration & Personal Growth

      “O.C.R.” is an eye opening, empowering and revealing look into the implications of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory that is both fascinating and shocking and could impact the way you view the world and live your personal life, in a most wonderful and spiritually profound way.” It hammers home the awe-inspiring revelation that, as repeatedly demonstrated through quantum mechanics, there is no extant reality, that is, literally no material objects pre-existing in any specific position in space, and (to simplify here) that rather we each create, in the act of observation, our own ever-changing non-objective reality. This demanding but accessible book, in the tradition of such popular science books as Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, Gribbin’s In search of Schrodinger’s Cat and Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, interweaves a discussion of the less familiar proto-physical or quantum world with the more-familiar physical and metaphysical world, offering readers not just contextualized explanations but inspiring applications of observer-created reality. Not the least of which supports the admonition to “live in moment” since …”reality itself does not exist beyond this present moment!” OCR offers bold, eye-opening, never before published new perspectives of life’s most elusive topics including “reality” “time” “light” “scale” “perception” “Quantum language” and their curious intertwined relationships; even a perspective on the Higgs and the endless search for the elementary particle.

      • John F. Hendry

        Something to think about. Consciousness has to fit the body and wear it’s straight jacket connected to physics. And understanding time is the key. Simple basic concepts that involve time dilation are being missed in physics because Einstein is still regarded wrong in regards to the “dice” he rejected. Chance is replacing the graviton’s Mass oscillation phase in time and it’s harmonic comma and time dilation in effect sitting still is making things look impossible to figure out as time fails to ever stop even in a wait state.

        The asymmetry of the weak force {a} is the solution Einstein was working on that’s data was not announced until 2003 twenty years after CERN announced the discovery of the W boson in 1983, the force carrier of the weak force. Einstein died in 1955 so his goal to create a proper model supported by a Unified Field Theory equation was difficult at that time although I am surprised he didn’t fill in the pieces as they are obvious and can be deduced mathematically.

        But even with so much new data available now in the eyes of today’s scientists space forming in a harmonic octave structure has resulted in seeing most of the matter and energy in the Universe missing. They think particles come in 3 generations because Consciousness has not been placed with Mass oscillation. While the math is mostly correct their model leaves out the Observer’s Mass resulting in these two massive errors of perception with many more stacked on top of each other. So it will be a while before the World knows Einstein was right as CERN tries to hide {a} matching their neutrino data and the question is why.

        CERN’s scientists do not control the Military or the Banks, nor do the people that pay the taxes that built the tools for both War and Progress, nor does the US Congress or the even our President, yet the World has given them the power to destroy all higher forms of life on the planet and certainly all humans as Fukushima is just a little tiny possibility of error waiting to happen with countless buildings of biological weapons and other nuclear threats hidden throughout a World ruled by deception and insecurity in support of hate powering greed. Hate at a level never seen before as the smile on people faces hides their true feelings with many past the deception state with Hate being their God.

        We see blind greed and ignorance resulting in massive hate towards the US aimed at all of us with our military proudly posing for pictures displaying the Nazi flag showing they enjoy hunting, torturing, and killing other humans. Hate is their drug of choice they often bring back with them from practice Wars and unleash on their own brothers in arms at home. We see a wheel getting bigger and bigger rolling faster into insanity addicted to hate and power.

        If people listened to Einstein (the Old Fuddy-Duddy) then they wouldn’t call it History repeating itself. But something cannot repeat itself if asymmetry is added and used to change the future and that is our only hope of survival. And that is how we must create our own reality for all Observers are real and connected to it through the strong force and endless wait states as Life maintains the speed of light.

        Just because you may see Consciousness is the source of matter it does give you the power to separate yourself from the inertial frame of reference that connects all observers together as one, for individually they are separated into their own information frames and each is as real as the other and all must work together in some form of agreement and system of Law in balance with Natures Laws.

        But brute force has little respect for rules of Man or even the laws of physics when they get in the way, and Einstein was a hard man to prove wrong.

    • Raul

      May I ask if the observer effect is still valid? Some postulate that the universe is what we make it because we make it that way, via our unconscious observation. They go as far as to claim that we can change reality if we become enlightened enough. Of course at one point the world was thought to be flat, I don’t think this means that the majority thoughts made it so.

      • http://www.girlinthejitterbugdress.com/ Tam Francis: The Girl in the J

        I would be interested to know this. It makes sense though, if everything is “vibration.” I suppose it would depend on the properties of the vibrations, like what particles to thought vibrations break down to and like the article implies some of the fields affect others, but some have zero affect?

    • Spiros Koutandos

      What if a field such as one describing pressure exists. I am carrying out researches at http://www.gsjournal.net about this possibility.

    • http://www.girlinthejitterbugdress.com/ Tam Francis: The Girl in the J

      Thank you for explaining this concept in a way which is easily understandable. I am sharing this with my 14-year-old-daughter who LOVE studying about space and the universe and my 12-year-old son. I will look for some more info, already got some great suggestions from other comments :)

    • John F. Hendry

      “Sounds” to me like a New Circle of Fifth’s is needed. One that establishes a true initial inertial frame of reference with a hole in it:
      e- {a}/t=hv to show the RATIO.

      I tell you…. the smartest people are blind as a deaf bat regarding the structure of the finest things in life that remain exactly the same…..

      {a} = value of weak force asymmetry.

    • cadmar

      I understand the field vibration but what is the field made up of? I see a bed sheet vibrating and the cotton sheet is vibrating from the center point. But of the field, this space vibrating: what is this “space” physical? (in the sense of some form of energy always there)