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.

- 13 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. I thought it was very interesting.

    11 Jan 2005, 20:57

  2. John Dale

    Me too. Tell us more; what about superstrings and M theory and red, green and blue quarks, and the Higgs boson? And could we really consume our entire universe if a particle smashing experiment produces the wrong sort of result? Enquiring, but ignorant, minds want to know.

    In fact one of the aspects of WB that – unexpectedly – I find myself enjoying is when people write about aspects of their courses. One of the strange contradictions of working at a university is that you're surrounded by people who know lots of stuff about lots of things, but it's hard to find ways to take any advantage of it all.

    11 Jan 2005, 21:24

  3. Well, I'm glad someone liked it. I even corrected the spelling just now, because it really was appaling.

    11 Jan 2005, 21:40

  4. To answer one of your questions, John – I have read about one possible theory of quark-gluon plasma producing so-called "strange matter" that could, under the right conditions, destroy the world. I may blog on it fullly later.

    11 Jan 2005, 21:55

  5. I like particle physics. Actually I liked most Physics at school.

    That was very interesting Tom, I had forgotten what the six types of quarks were.

    11 Jan 2005, 21:59

  6. very interesting! keep it coming… if only our lectures were delivered in that way sigh

    11 Jan 2005, 22:03

  7. I never knew what the six tpes of quarks were, and now I do, and am glad.

    11 Jan 2005, 22:36

  8. Higgs Boson is really one to stay away from. I'm a third year currently investigating CP violation for my group project, that is matter/ antimatter violation. It's strange to think of, but weak interactions behave differently for matter than for antimatter. This is commonly seen in the B^0 meson system with regard to the J/psi particle.

    Who's lecturing that course? Is it Paul Harrison?

    11 Jan 2005, 23:03

  9. CP violation eh? I wouldn't like to be CP.

    You can build a small particle accelerator in your own home. You need a set of powerful magnets and a vacuum pump. I can't remember the rest.

    I'm almost tempted to write about my degree, but I stop because I know most people don't care about a lot of stuff to do with computers. I'm thoughtful like that.

    Although I did have a good conversation with my friend in Liverpool who is using the Unreal engine to model a building for her degree in Architecture. She should clearly join our game design soc. As should all of youuuuu (im waving my finger at you all) bye

    11 Jan 2005, 23:33

  10. More! more! Particle physics is cool because it makes no sense.

    12 Jan 2005, 00:49

  11. I'm a third year physicist (apparently). I only got about a 1/4 of the way into the post before giving up. Probably because reading about physics makes me think about other, more fun things I could be doing, like chewing a hole in my desk so I can feed wires through it and put my computer on the floor.
    Do you think I'm in the wrong course?

    12 Jan 2005, 23:41

  12. Peter Skands

    Sure particle physics makes sense!! You just gotta be nuts to get it. And I know what I'm talking about. Working at Fermilab as a theoretical particle physicist, you get to see a LOT of weird stuff (and people). I'll limit it to silly particle names in this one, though… these are all real serious names of serious things that people write and publish articles about, I even do my own research on some of them. OK, here we go:

    Pomerons (cut or uncut), spurions, odderons, sphalerons, instantons, squarks (spelling intended), sleptons, sneutrinos, charginos, neutralinos, gluinos, Kaluza-Klein excitations, glueballs, glueballinos, gluinoballs, inflatons, moduli fields, dilatons, radions, and a big load of otherons that I can't remember :)

    Hope you find them amusing! If you want to read about what I actually get paid for, see:

    03 Mar 2005, 01:25

  13. Dan Roythorne

    While we're on the subject on particle-like entities in theoretical physics may I add solitons, axions, Khalerons (sp?), tachyons and, in a stunning sway from "on"-suffix convention, ghosts (No really! No sarcasm intended.)

    Tom, would you like to write a pop-science book with me? I like your writing style.


    Dan (I'm a first year Phd student with Paul Harrison as my supervisor.)

    P.S. How could I possibly forget strings, D-branes and topological defects (like monopoles and cosmic strings)? I ask thee!

    09 Feb 2006, 21:53

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