Physicists routinely describe the universe as being made of tiny subatomic particles that push and pull on one another by means of force fields. They call their subject “particle physics” and their instruments “particle accelerators.” They hew to a Lego-like model of the world. But this view sweeps a little-known fact under the rug: the particle interpretation of quantum physics, as well as the field interpretation, stretches our conventional notions of “particle” and “field” to such an extent that ever more people think the world might be made of something else entirely.
The problem is not that physicists lack a valid theory of the subatomic realm. They do have one: it is called quantum field theory. Theorists developed it between the late 1920s and early 1950s by merging the earlier theory of quantum mechanics with Einstein's special theory of relativity. Quantum field theory provides the conceptual underpinnings of the Standard Model of particle physics, which describes the fundamental building blocks of matter and their interactions in one common framework. In terms of empirical precision, it is the most successful theory in the history of science. Physicists use it every day to calculate the aftermath of particle collisions, the synthesis of matter in the big bang, the extreme conditions inside atomic nuclei, and much besides.