By Robert C. Cowen, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
HENRY FRISCH is hot on the trail of an elusive form of matter.
Physicists generally are convinced that it exists. They need it to complete the set of elementary particles that current theory requires. Yet they have never seen it in spite of many years of searching.
Now the University of Chicago physicist says he is "willing to bet even odds on $1,000" that it will turn up in the data his group plans to collect next spring at the nearby Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab).
Dr. Frisch's confidence, such as it is, also is a measure of the progress physicists have made in understanding the basic structure of matter and the challenge they believe they now face.
Using their current best concept - the so-called Standard Model - particle physicists describe all the matter they know in terms of a limited set of particles and the forces acting between them. There are six particles of the type called quarks and six of the type called leptons.
The quarks are grouped into three families of two quarks each - the up and down quark family, the charm and strange quark family, and the top and bottom quark family.
Each of these families also contains two leptons - an electron-like particle and its associated neutrino. Neutrinos are shadowy particles with little, if any, mass. They interact so weakly with other particles that they zip through a solid mass like Earth as though it weren't there. They emerge from particle interactions mainly as entities that carry some of the associated energy.
Besides gravity, which the Standard Model scheme doesn't cover, these particles interact through three forces - the electromagnetic force, the weak force involved in some forms of radioactivity, and the strong force that binds quarks together.
For example, the strong force binds up and down quarks in various combinations to form protons and neutrons and some other particles. The protons and neutrons join to form atomic nuclei. The electromagnetic force, in turn, forms the chemical elements by binding different nuclei to ordinary electrons, which are part of the up and down quark family.
Other quark families form more exotic particles seen only fleetingly when particles collide in high-energy particle-accelerator experiments.
Special force-carrying particles mediate these interactions. Gluons carry the strong force. Photons (particles of light) carry the electromagnetic force. And particles known by the letters W and Z carry the weak force. Actually, physicists now know that these latter two forces are just different aspects of a single underlying force they call the electro-weak interaction. …