Update: I went over this answer and clarified some parts. Most importantly I expanded the Forces section to connect better with the question.
I like your reasoning and you actually come to the right conclusions, so congratulations on that! But understanding the relation between forces and particles isn't that simple and in my opinion the best one can do is provide you with the bottom-up description of how one arrives to the notion of force when one starts with particles. So here comes the firmware you wanted. I hope you won't find it too long-winded.
So let's start with particle physics. The building blocks are particles and interactions between them. That's all there is to it. Imagine you have a bunch of particles of various types (massive, massless, scalar, vector, charged, color-charged and so on) and at first you could suppose that all kinds of processes between this particles are allowed (e.g. three photons meeting at a point and creating a gluon and a quark; or sever electrons meeting at a point and creating four electrons a photon and three gravitons). Physics could indeed look like this and it would be an incomprehensible mess if it did.
Fortunately for us, there are few organizing principles that make the particle physics reasonably simple (but not too simple, mind you!). These principles are known as conservation laws. After having done large number of experiments, we became convinced that electric charged is conserved (the number is the same before and after the experiment). We have also found that momentum is conserved. And lots of other things too. This means that processes such as the ones I mentioned before are already ruled out because they violate some if these laws. Only processes that can survive (very strict) conservation requirements are to be considered possible in a theory that could describe our world.
Another important principle is that we want our interactions simple. This one is not of experimental nature but it is appealing and in any case, it's easier to start with simpler interactions and only if that doesn't work trying to introduce more complex ones. Again fortunately for us, it turns out basic interactions are very simple. In a given interaction point there is always just a small number of particles. Namely:
- two: particle changing direction
- particle absorbing another particle, e.g. $e^- + \gamma \to e^-$
- or one particle decaying to two other particles $W^- \to e^- + \bar\nu_e$
- four: these ones don't have as nice interpretation as the above ones; but to give an example anyone, one has e.g. two gluons going in and two gluons going out
So one example of such a simple process is electron absorbing a photon. This violates no conservation law and actually turns out to be the building block of a theory of electromagnetism. Also, the fact that there is a nice theory for this interaction is connected to the fact that the charge is conserved (and in general there is a relation between conservation of quantities and the way we build our theories) but this connection is better left for another question.
Back to the forces
So, you are asking yourself what was all that long and boring talk about, aren't you? The main point is: our world (as we currently understand it) is indeed described by all those different species of particles that are omnipresent everywhere and interact by the bizarre interactions allowed by the conservation laws.
So when one wants to understand electromagnetic force all the way down, there is no other way (actually, there is one and I will mention it in the end; but I didn't want to over-complicate the picture) than to imagine huge number of photons flying all around, being absorbed and emitted by charged particles all the time.
So let's illustrate this on your problem of Coulomb interaction between two electrons. The complete contribution to the force between the two electrons consists of all the possible combination of elementary processes. E.g. first electron emits photon, this then flies to the other electron and gets absorbed, or first electron emits photon, this changes to electron-positron pair which quickly recombine into another photon and this then flies to the second electron and gets absorbed. There is huge number of these processes to take into account but actually the simplest ones contribute the most.
But while we're at Coulomb force, I'd like to mention striking difference to the classical case. There the theory tells you that you have an EM field also when one electron is present. But in quantum theory this wouldn't make sense. The electron would need to emit photons (because this is what corresponds to the field) but they would have nowhere to fly to. Besides, electron would be losing energy and so wouldn't be stable. And there are various other reasons while this is not possible.
What I am getting at is that a single electron doesn't produce any EM field until it meets another charged particle! Actually, this should make sense if you think about it for a while. How do you detect there is an electron if nothing else at all is present? The simple answer is: you're out of luck, you won't detect it. You always need some test particles. So the classical picture of an electrostatic EM field of a point particle describes only what would happen if another particle would be inserted in that field.
The above talk is part of the bigger bundle of issues with measurement (and indeed even of the very definition of) the mass, charge and other properties of system in quantum field theory. These issues are resolved by the means of renormalization but let's leave that for another day.
Well, turns out all of the above talk about particles (although visually appealing and technically very useful) is just an approximation to the more precise picture of there existing just one quantum field for every particle type and the huge number of particles everywhere corresponding just to sharp local peaks of that field. These fields then interact by the means of quite complex interactions that reduce to the usual particle stuff when once look what those peaks are doing when they come close together.
This field view can be quite enlightening for certain topics and quite useless for others. One place where it is actually illuminating is when one is trying to understand to spontaneous appearance of so-called virtual particle-antiparticle pairs. It's not clear where do they appear from as particles. But from the point of view of the field, they are just local excitations. One should imagine quantum field as a sheet that is wiggling around all the time (by the means of inherent quantum wigglage) and from time to time wiggling hugely enough to create a peak that corresponds to the mentioned pair.
This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:26 (UCT), posted by SE-user Marek