The Poetry of Particle Physics

I’m riding my bike on a road that rings the decommissioned Tevatron, a particle accelerator at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois. Berms, raised banks that kept in radioactivity produced when the accelerator was running, rise up where the Tevatron’s tunnels lie dormant underground. Tracing the hidden, humongous donut of a machine that once spun protons and antiprotons at unimaginable speeds, I thought about how ridiculous it is that I’m here, at a particle physics laboratory. And I laughed.

In high school, which seems like forever ago even to my 22-year-old brain, physics defeated me. I remember the way the first test flopped against my desk when my teacher returned it, the churn of my stomach when I saw the F scratched in red ink. The way I ran into the hallway, crying, burning with shame.

I was a straight-A student, an all-state athlete. I didn’t fail anything ever. But I failed physics. Immediately. Entirely. I transferred out of the class, vowing never to look a physics equation in the eye again. The seeds of my deep hatred of physics had been planted.

That’s why my current position as a science writing intern at Fermilab, a place my high-school self would have voted Least Likely for Me to Visit, is hilarious — and triumphant.

I blame it all on the poetry of particle physics.

Dusk in the Tevatron's Main Ring. Photo by: Chris Patrick
Dusk in the Tevatron’s Main Ring. Photo by me.

The job posting stood out because, despite taking two mandatory intro physics courses in college, I didn’t exactly know what particle physics was. I thought there was just plain ol’ traumatizing physics. Intrigued by the idea of returning to physics as a writer, I did some research…and then I found the quark.

You’re allowed to laugh at the name. It sounds like a cross between a quack and a bark, or maybe the noise produced by a fart expelled against the stiff wooden seat of a chair. (Say it out loud. The likeness is uncanny. Kwork!) Murray Gell-Man, one of the men to first postulate the existence of this type of particle, plucked the nonsensical word from a line in the James Joyce novel Finnegans Wake, “Three quarks for Muster Mark!”

Their name is whimsical, but quarks play a key role in our universe: They are everything. Like, everything. All ordinary matter — including you and your toothbrush and the 100 billion galaxies in the universe — is mostly made up of the quark, a fundamental particle.

What does it mean to be fundamental? In particle physics, something is fundamental if it can’t be broken into littler bits. It has no smaller parts; it’s simple and structureless.

Once, scientists thought the atom itself was fundamental. Its name comes from the Greek word “atomos,” meaning uncuttable. But eventually scientists found ways to cut up what they thought was uncuttable, mentally slicing and dicing the once-indivisible atom to reveal its underlying structure.

Those who study the particles that make up the atom’s underlying structure — and a myriad of other particles not found in the atom — are particle physicists. Particle physicists ask What are we made of? and What is the nature of our universe? They study the infinitesimally small to learn about the unfathomably large. Their endeavors are lofty and absurd. They are poets.

Poetry uncovers. A poet reveals new ideas, obscure truths. A poem may tell you something you never knew about the world in which you live. A particle physicist does the same. With their math and their machines and their madness, particle physicists uncover the underlying structure of our existence.

Poetry unifies. Poetry can depict a flicker of life that resonates in readers, humming deep and low in our guts, reminding us of our shared human experience, of our humanity. Particle physics does the same when it tells us we are all made of the same stuff, like quarks.

Perhaps above all, poetry and particle physics are beautiful. Uncovering and unifying, revealing and reminding — thoughts from the minds in these fields pluck us from our daily dialogue and give us a quick shake, show us there is splendor.

Like poetry, however, the functionality of particle physics is not always obvious. The splendor particle physicists seek won’t save lives or make money — not at first. Particle physicists tackle questions before they know how the answers will be profitable; they learn before they know how we will use this knowledge in industry or otherwise.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the poets of particle physics (and their compadres in chemistry) found that the atom is actually a congregation of three separate particles: electrons, protons and neutrons. These three particles live in different places in the atom and have different characteristics.

Electrons, small and speedy, fly in frenzied circles at an atom’s outer edge. As of now, particle physicists think that, like quarks, electrons are fundamental. At least, there’s been no evidence to prove the contrary.

Electrons encircle the atomic nucleus, an atom’s dense core of protons and neutrons. The atomic nucleus is a bit like the sun, encircled by the planetary orbit of electrons. Almost all of an atom’s mass is found in these protons and neutrons, both of which are much heavier than airily merrily whizzing electrons. For a long while, scientists thought protons and neutrons were fundamental.

That changed in 1964. Two men, Murray Gell-Man and George Zweig, independently and almost simultaneously suggested the existence of quarks. Of course, they didn’t both call them quarks. Quark was Gell-Man’s name for the particle he thought made up protons and neutrons. Zweig called his theoretical particles “aces.” Gell-Man’s name probably stuck because it makes people smile.

Since then, scientists have found six quark types, which are called flavors. (Yes, “flavors” is the official, technical name. The particle physics lexicon is a delightful mix of Greek, adorable nerdliness and pure whimsy.) As they were discovered in a span of almost 30 years, the six flavors of quark were named up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom. I would have preferred their names be vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, cookie dough, mint and peanut butter.

Although scientists know there are six flavors of quarks, they’ve never seen a quark by itself. Quarks can’t exist alone because they have fractional electrical charges. Instead, they live in groups, forming composite particles with whole number charges — like protons and neutrons.

Much more of an atom’s mass is in its protons and neutrons than its low-mass electrons. Which means most of an atom’s mass is in its quarks. This prompted particle physicists to call quarks the building blocks of matter. Quarks are the center, the heart, the meat of an atom. Fundamentally, we are quarks.

Actually, we’re only two flavors of quark: up and down. A proton is made up of three quarks — two up and one down. Neutrons are two down and one up.

Up and down quarks are the lightest of the six flavors, which makes them stable. The four other quarks (charm and strange, top and bottom) are too heavy and unstable to exist in ordinary matter. As soon as they pop into existence they immediately decay into their lighter cousins, the up and down quarks.

If we’ve never seen a quark by itself, and four flavors of quark don’t even exist in everyday matter, how do we know they exist? It all starts in an expensive, high-tech tube.

In particle accelerators physicists make particles go super fast, almost the speed of light, and then smash them into each other. They steer particles through tunnels, which can be linear or circular, with very powerful magnets. The accelerators might shoot a beam of particles at a stationary target, or collide two beams into each another.

Fermilab’s Tevatron is a synchrotron, a circular accelerator. To bike its four-mile circumference is to lap a history-making machine. It was the most powerful particle accelerator until CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, built the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

The Tevatron ran from 1983 to 2011. During this time, Fermilab physicists were the first to see evidence of the top quark and bottom quark. A colliding beam of protons and antiprotons, the antimatter form of protons, birthed these previously undetected flavors of quark.

A particle accelerator can produce particles that aren’t found in ordinary matter because it makes them go really really fast, which gives them a whole lot of energy. The faster a particle travels, the more energy it has. When a particle with all this energy smashes into something, the original particle disappears and new, fleeting particles form in its place.

It sounds fantastical. But it comes down to an equation you’ll recognize.

E = mc2

Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Much of modern particle physics relies on this frequently recited equation. Basically, it tells us that energy (E) equals matter (m). The conversion of energy to matter and vice versa allows particle physicists to summon exotic, fundamental particles into our universe. When the accelerated particles hit something, all the energy they have from going so fast is converted to mass, forming new, heavier particles not present in ordinary matter.

Before a spray of freshly formed, exotic particles decays into lighter, more mundane particles, detectors situated at collision sites within a particle accelerator record absolutely insane amounts of data from the particle spray. Computers and particle physicists sift through all this data, looking for signatures unique to certain particles. The signatures tell them what particles formed and instantaneously decayed in the detector post-collision.

Sometimes these detectors show the signatures of up and down quarks, the same particles that make up every single one of my seven billion billion billion atoms and your seven billion billion billion atoms and however many atoms are in dog doo-doo. If that’s not poetry, I don’t know what is.


One thought on “The Poetry of Particle Physics

  1. Amazing work. Wildly (and whimsically) impressed. Kudos.
    P.S. I was directed to your site by Professor Nancy Lord, in the Hopkins Science Writing program. Glad she made us stop by and take a gander.
    P.P.S “Quark” will forever cause a quick chortle when I hear/think of those weird tiny mysteries.


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