When Cap'n Bob and the Prince of Darkness Went Quark-Hunting in a Bubble Chamber

By Johnson, Paul | The Spectator, February 5, 2000 | Go to article overview

When Cap'n Bob and the Prince of Darkness Went Quark-Hunting in a Bubble Chamber


Johnson, Paul, The Spectator


I do not claim to understand the physics of subatomic particles, but I am interested in their contribution to our language. I like the idea of a quark, an appealing creature which sounds as though it might have been invented by Edward Lear. Officially a quark is defined as 'a point in space of no measurable size', but I suspect it is bigger than that and certainly more significant. I prefer quarks to leptons, sinister things, rather like Marxists posing as New Labour. You can 'couple' with a quark and 'decouple' from it, though the latter produces an Electroweak Reaction - rather a feeble consequence you might think. I feel I could do business with quarks, though not with leptons. The trouble is, most grand unified theories 'tend to bring the quarks and leptons together in one big family'. Such a family would include 'bosons'. I don't know what they are but an X-boson is said to be ,very massive'. They encompass photons and gluons and, below them, or possibly inside them, photinos, winos, gluinos, gravitinos and zinos. Each has a lifetime or a half-life. 'Proton decay' can occur 'often or very rarely', not a helpful statement if you meet a decayed wino on a dark night, especially if it's carrying a Large ElectronPositron Collider, as many do these days.

There are innumerable quarks, and a good question to ask at physics seminars is 'What Makes a Top Quark?' You see, there are Top and Bottom quarks (rather like lesbians), Up and Down quarks, Charm quarks and Strange quarks. A Strange quark can produce 'cascade baryon' and a positive shower of red, green and blue gluons. I'm sorry to bring Cap'n Bob into it here, but there is an explanation called 'Maxwell's Electron-Magnetic Theory'. This may not of course have anything to do with Mirror-Pension Maxwell, wearing his baseball cap the wrong way round and wagging his huge bum as he strolls from one gravitino to another. His favourite saying was 'Strig theories can produce inconsistencies if they include the concept of Supersymmetry'. It is a fact that there is a Higgs's Particle, or rather something known as 'the Missing Higgs's Particle', and I expect Maxwell had something to do with that. The matter can be tested in the magnetic field of a Bubble Chamber, which shows how electrons produced from gamma rays curl up in opposite directions to form infinitely small Catherine wheels of red, blue and green gluons, and then vanish - a typical Maxwell ploy.

It's not clear if quarks are an oppressed class or employ servants. One physicist has compared them to 'prisoners in a chain gang'. On the other hand, they are kept informed by their personal Messenger Particles. I read: 'The virtual gluons that flit between the quarks within a hard-on are not neutral but carry mixtures of colour and anti-colour.' I am not sure exactly what anti-colour is, but it's something to do with the Turner Prize. The term hard-on is also puzzling. Scrutinising my hurried notes, I fear this may be a mis-transcription for hadron, since I know that Oscar Greenberg and Yoichiru Nambu have done a lot of work on 'the colours of hadrons'. The names of the experts are almost as good as the scientific terms they have coined. Hail Sheldon Glashow, Abdul Salam, Chen Ning Yang and Murrary Gell-Mann! Here's the stuff of poetry! Nor must I forget Gerard 't Hooft and his ringing assertion: 'Electroweak theory is renormalisable.' Subatomic particularists are notable for their obiter dicta, such as the famous lab saying (you can bet your half-life it has a Freudian subtext): 'Scatter me off an electron and I will leave no track. …

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