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What are the Four Fundamental Forces of Nature?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 21, 2024
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Since the early 20th century, physicists have recognized four fundamental forces, or interactions, that encompass all known phenomena in nature. Three out of four have been characterized rigorously and mathematically by the Standard Model, formulated in the early 1970s. The four forces are the strong nuclear force (also known as the color force), the weak nuclear force (mediates beta decay), the electromagnetic force, and gravity.

At very high energies, the weak nuclear and the electromagnetic force unite (start behaving interchangeably), while at still higher forces, it is believed that the strong force unites with the electroweak, and finally, the strong-electroweak force unites with gravity. It is believed that all four were united an instant after the Big Bang, in the earliest stages of the universe's formation.

The strong nuclear force holds together protons and neutrons in the atomic nucleus. More specifically, it is mediated by the exchange of gluons between quarks making up protons and neutrons. It is 100 times stronger than the electromagnetic force. When nuclei are smashed in nuclear reactions, energy from this force is released. Described by the theory of physics called quantum chromodynamics, it loses all its strength in distances much wider than the atomic nucleus.

The electromagnetic force is that with which people are most familiar, and it is responsible for all chemical reactions and the most recognizable physical properties, such as light. It is mediated by photons, which make up all electromagnetic radiation, from cosmic rays to visible light to extremely low frequency radio waves. Both heat and light are made up of photons.

Electromagnetic force interactions are determined by electric charge. The reason people don't fall through a chair while sitting on it is that the negative charge of the atomic electron shells making up the body are repelled by the negative charge of the electron shells making up the chair. Photon waves diminish in strength according to the square of the distance of their source.

The weak nuclear force is responsible for a relatively small range of fundamental interactions. It mediates beta decay, which is what happens when a neutron breaks down into a proton and an electron or positron. Mediated by W and Z bosons, it is about a hundred billion times weaker than the electromagnetic. It only operates over short distances.

Gravity is the weakest of all forces, but the most pervasive in the universe because it is generated by all bodies with mass. Gravity is 1036 times weaker than the electromagnetic force, which makes it hard to analyze mathematically. The particles thought to mediate gravity — gravitons — have not yet been detected. Gravity is also distinct from the other forces in that it has not yet been integrated with the others in a rigorous mathematical way. Physicists have been searching for a theory to unify gravity with the other forces for almost a century, with no luck so far.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon357329 — On Dec 03, 2013

Do you not see that all the forces are ever united and part of the one system? I have come to realize that it is the education system that is at fault. The ability to 'see' is educated out or turned off. "Scale"is the key to understanding some forces you might take for granted.

By GigaGold — On Mar 02, 2011

We still don't fully understand how gravity and magnetism function, but we observe their effects all throughout the universe. What really blows people's minds is the idea of the black hole and how it manipulates all the basic forces of nature to create an interdimensional wormhole. Cosmologists postulate about other possible dimensions in M-Theory and Brane-Theory.

By ShadowGenius — On Feb 27, 2011

As we learn to cause different forces to interact, we create new technologies and powers that are at our disposal. For instance, when we caused sound waves in the air to be converted to electromagnetic waves, we learned to transmit radio signals and use sound systems to magnify voice and instruments.

By dbuckley212 — On Feb 26, 2011

String theory postulates that all of these forces are made up of basic force generating strings which make up the spacetime continuum. It is postulated that small amounts of these strings make up the smallest elements of nature and cause them to hold atoms together and create electron orbits. If we could learn to manipulate these strings, we could manipulate space and time and travel through it freely.

By Proxy414 — On Feb 23, 2011

All forces are connected by basic patterns that we see recurring in the universe. The gravitational force occurs on the large scale to cause revolution of large round bodies around larger bodies. This occurs on the microscopic scale with stronger forces of atomic particles. These are all postulated to have come from a single larger force which makes up the fabric of spacetime. This is the study of cosmologists and scientists and philosophers who are searching for a "theory of everything."

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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