All entries for Tuesday 11 January 2005

January 11, 2005

I swear, sometimes they just make the particles up…

I study Physics here at Warwick, and I'm going to talk about it. I will now pause for five seconds to allow most of you to run away.

Someone stayed? Wow, I feel so… oh no, wait, he's gone.

Screw it, I'm gonna talk about physics anyway.

This term I'm taking the Introduction to Particle Physics module. It's great, because like all the best physics it's foaming at-the-mouth-insane.

Particle physicists are like your kid brother – they keep trying to take everything apart, claiming that they wanted to "see how it works". Only instead of your watch, your stereo or your pets, particle physics like to rip apart the fabric of reality.

Also like your kid brother, you get the distinct feeling that they actually like tearing stuff to pieces for the sheer hell of it.

It all started innocently enough, with the wonderful discovery that things are made of "atoms". The word atom comes from a Greek word meaning "indivisible". Physicists being a contrary lot, they immediately set about dividing the atom up into chunks.

Soon we had an atom consisting of protons (the positive ones), neutrons (the neutral ones) and electrons (disappointingly not called negatrons, perhaps on the basis that it sounded too much like a reject from the Transformers cartoon). And for a while, that was it. We had it all figured out – everything was made of protons, neutrons and electrons. Plus this kinda weird thing called the neutrino, which seemed to be massless and essentially pointless, but helped us explain where all the energy was going in certain decays, so it was tolerated. Wonderful.

Then out of basically nowhere came the muon. This entirely superfulous particle is only ever witnessed in showers from cosmic rays, and in physics laboratories. No-one knows why the universe bothers with it. It's unstable enough that you can't really make stuff out of it, and it's basically just an electron anyway, only heavier. Like it's unfit older brother or something.

Then it all went nuts. Particle physicists couldn't stop finding particles. There were pions. There were kaons. As if the muon wasn't bad enough, it turned out to have an immensely heavier cousin called the tau, which NEVER shows up except in labs. There were more neutrinos, for the muon and tau.

Then it turned out that protons, neutrons, kaons and the like were all made out of really stupidly tiny things called quarks. At this point, the physicists had clearly run out of Greek or gone crazy or something, so they started naming the different "flavours" of quarks: up, down, charm, strange, beauty and truth. Beauty and truth were then renamed to "bottom" and "top" respectively, on the frankly absurd basis that the old names were too silly. Personally I think the silliness threshold had been crossed a while ago.

So here we are, with a forest of particles and silly names for all of them. And now particle physicists spend their time taking these particles, making them go really really fast, and then smashing them into each other. Again, like your kid brother. If you never want to grow up, have I got the career for you.

All these high energy particle pile-ups are performed in an effort to find, you guessed it, yet more particles. Possibly, there may be a whole new variety of particles, called (and I'm seriously not joking) sparticles, out there, if we can just make a really BIG crash. There are many theories as to what the sparticles might belike, if they exist – no word on whether they will lead their fellow particles on a revolution against their oppressive Roman masters, I'm afraid.

Oookay, I just made an extremely poor Spartacus joke. This entry needs to die.

But it does make you think about the wonder of humanity's achievements. Here we are, so vulnerable as creatures, with no natural defences,
gangly limbs and soft, yielding flesh, and yet – our dominance of this planet is so total we can afford to have people sit around all day and do nothing but devise ways to smash incredibly tiny things into one another very fast and watch the results. But Robot Wars isn't on any more, so we can all enjoy particle physics instead. No really, it's fun! Please come back!

Oh, wait, there was no-one here anyway.


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