The elementary particles of matter interact with one another through four distinct types of force: gravitation, electromagnetism, and the forces from strong interactions and weak interactions. A given particle experiences certain of these forces, while it may be immune to others. The gravitational force is experienced by all particles. The electromagnetic force is experienced only by charged particles, such as the electron and muon. The strong nuclear force is responsible for the structure of the nucleus, and only particles made up of quarks participate in the strong nuclear interaction or force. Other particles, including the electron, muon, and the three neutrinos, do not participate in the strong nuclear interactions but only in the weak nuclear interactions associated with particle decay.
Each force is carried by an elementary particle. The electromagnetic force, for instance, is mediated by the photon, the basic quantum of electromagnetic radiation. The strong force is mediated by the gluon, the weak force by the W and Z particles, and gravity is thought to be mediated by the graviton. Quantum field theory applied to the understanding of the electromagnetic force is called quantum electrodynamics, and applied to the understanding of strong interactions is called quantum chromodynamics. In 1979 Sheldon Glashow, Steven Weinberg, and Abdus Salam were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in demonstrating that the electromagnetic and weak forces are really manifestations of a single electroweak force. A unified theory that would explain all four forces as manifestations of a single force is being sought.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.