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A History of Atomic Physics, and Other Animals

"The universe is made up of stories, not atoms." - Muriel Rukeyser

Way, way back in time, a little boy was told in school that all matter in the universe was made of atoms. Atoms, it seems, or at least the idea of atoms, had been around for quite a while, since Ancient Greece, in fact. It seems that this chap Democritus came up with the word ἄτομος (atomos) in about 450 BCE, around a hundred and fifty years after a bunch of Indian Jain philosophers came up with the concept of indivisible particles. The lad was excited about this, and spent many days trying to see atoms, using ever more and more powerful magnifying glasses. He failed, of course, and had to content himself with a photograph of atoms in his encyclopædia.

It will probably come as little surprise when I tell you that the little boy of this tale was me. The concept of the atom got me all excited about the world, for suddenly I knew that every breath of air contained atoms breathed by Jesus, Confucius, Lao Tse, Abraham Lincoln, and yes, Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler, for atoms were indestructible and were recycled in perpetuity. My education continued as I discovered that each element was unique, having been created in stars over millions of years since the creation of the universe.

Then I had my first body blow. Atoms were not indivisible, not unchangeable motes of matter. It turns out after all that they were made up of smaller specks with odd names - electrons, protons, neutrons; these were the fundamental particles, these made up all I could see, packed together in little bundles surrounded by mostly-empty space containing whizzing clouds of electrons that could spin. Each had an electrical charge, either positive or negative. Even worse, it turns out that the atom could be split after all, that Mankind discovered how to do it, and in doing so released vast amounts of energy, which of course they turned to evil uses. How could they lie to me this way, mislead not just me, but a generation of schoolchildren?

Of course, they had an explanation. "It was all for your own good", they said, "you'd never have been able to understand the whole reality all at once, so we told you just a part of the truth". I felt like they'd hidden some grand secret from me as punishment. I expected them to say "This hurts us more than it hurts you", but that they did not say. Still, I was happy, knowing that at last I knew the whole truth, and as I learned about the different elements, and how they combine as they do, I understood valency and atomic weight and all that made up the science of chemistry, and all was well.

Bitten and pared to the quark

It didn't take me long to discover the terrible truth about chemists and physicists. The latter had lied to the former, and once again my worldview was shattered. Not only were there other particles that they knew about; bosons and gluons and neutrinos and tachyons, but there were some that they dreamed about, and these they called quarks. Everkeen to dismay and discomfit, they told tales of how these other weeny particles whizzed about with ever-declining half-lives and amazing speeds; improbable masses and fantastic names. As if that were not enough, they assumed the existence of other things they could not see, and the biggest and most important one they imagined was the Higgs Boson. How could they expect us to believe this stuff? What kind of a name is that? I wondered, even as I read about how it was vitally important that this thing exists even though they had never seen one.

They told me that electrons had spin, and that the particles in the nucleus jiggled. I read about the cyclotron and particle accelerators and the house that CERN built, and wondered at what these wiggly lines in their cloud chambers were. Surely they made this up, surely the world is simpler than this? But no, they stuck to their guns and I finally gave in and had to acknowledge that they knew what they were about, even though their photographs of bubble chambers initially meant nothing to me. But at least it made sense after a while, and after a fashion.

So was that the end of my journey? Of course not. Now it seems that charge and spin were not the only quality of matter, nor that these particles were the smallest thing there was. They claimed to have proof that they in turn were made of smaller bits, and I learned about the quark. These teensy bits of stuff were so tiny that we were never likely to be able to "see" them, although they had mathematics (and a damned lot of it) to prove their point. I sighed, conceded defeat and accepted their ideas, swallowed whole their scribblings on the qualities of these mystery motes. So now, I capitulate.

I accept your tall tales for now, O Physicists. I acknowledge your wisdoms, even though I doubt your methods. For I have a theory, and it is this. There are indeed quarks, and they do come with all the different qualities (or "flavours") you say they do. I read that there are up and down quarks, quarks with charm, strange quarks. I even hear that there are quarks that are top and bottom, like some deviant BDSM fantasy particle. I understand that you say that they have ½-spin, though that one is going to be a tough one to swallow. I believe that you believe in them, but I also speculate that you hit the sauce too much one night, or that your Berkeley dope-dealer friends doped your dope with acid.

Half a spin? You are all off your trolleys. Next you'll be trying to tell us all that the universe is ultimately made of string; I'd as soon believe that we actually did land on the Moon, and that it was made of green cheese.

Encyclopædia Britannica

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