In the beginning there was the atom. And it was accepted that everything was made of atoms. Secure in this knowledge all was well in the scientific world, learned men slept soundly at night. And it was good.
Curiously, we owe our modern concept of atoms to a mostly self-educated Quaker, John Dalton, born in the Lake District, who published his New System of Chemical Philosophy in 1808. At over 900 pages this was light reading only for those who devour encyclopedias, but one short chapter did introduce determined readers to atoms, which, Mr Dalton asserted, were:
- tiny beyond comprehension
- virtually indestructible.
And since one couldn’t see them, a fair number of the scientific community found it difficult to accept that they even existed at all. At least one eminent physicist committed suicide over the issue. But we digress. Generally, learned folk were prepared to accept that atoms existed, and wait for the proof to be forthcoming.
A bit later, Thomson discovered the electron, and suddenly all was not quite so well. Evidently the “irreducible” atom was not quite so “irreducible” after all, but this was conveniently ignored by most sensible folk, who continued to enjoy their slumbers.
Einstein’s 1st paper (on Brownian motion) supplied the first bit of definite proof that atoms really existed, but he went on to much (much) bigger things (the universe), and our poor, neglected atoms had to wait for that genial, brash, loud New Zealander Ernest Rutherford, the genius who was rotten at mathematics. (Just goes to show).
Anyway, Rutherford started the craze for “atom-smashing”. A curious method of research, come to think of it – bit like a kid smashing his grandfather’s watch to find out what makes it tick. (I always feel sorry for those poor, defenseless little atoms. Some people mutter ominously that no good will come of it, and that one day the particles will have their revenge, when some over-enthusiastic atom-smasher unleashes “strange quarks” which breed uncontrollably and gobble us up.)
Well, opening Pandora’s box was nothing on what happened in the atomic world. Out popped protons and neutrons. Electrons, which we already knew about, are really mysterious – they are “everywhere at the same time”. (Try get your brain around that one). Yes, difficult to believe, but it’s the only explanation that fits all the evidence. Truly, the universe is not only strange, it’s far stranger than we could ever imagine. When asked how one should mentally picture the atom, Heisenberg famously said: “Don’t try”. (Well, actually he said it in German, but you get the idea)
He also postulated the Uncertainty Principle. Which figures. And suddenly, people were having to face the concept that the atom could be like a tiny universe. And each particle in the atom could be another universe, and so on, ad infinitum.
So, if you’re not particularly good at remembering names, (me too), get your notebook ready, and prepare to meet the strange denizens of the atomic universe: pions, antipions, muons, (and antimuons, of course) neutrinos, photons . . . not to forget the gluons. Oy, vey!
Fortunately, Murray Gell-Mann of Caltech came up with a much simpler naming method: QUARKS. (His colleague Richard Feynman ingeniously proposed the name PARTONS, but was, sadly, over-ruled, and so we have quarks instead. By golly, we’re sorry, Ms Dolly)
And, for an ever so brief moment, all was well again, and learned men could sleep of nights. Then the existence of sub-quarks was detected (at this point, are we even slightly surprised?), and quarks had to be organized into “flavours”: UP, DOWN, STRANGE, CHARM, TOP and BOTTOM, and assigned “colours”: Red, Green or Blue. Bear in mind that lots of this research was happening in California during the age of Flower Power, and (probably) fueled by Cannabis and other “recreational” substances, and much will become clear(er).
So, to wrap up, we ended up with the so-called Standard Model (a sort of Meccano set for building atoms): six quarks, six leptons, and six bosons. (Well, 5 actually, number 6, the famous Higgs Boson, was introduced to account for the fact that atoms have mass. So, it’s very comforting that its existence has finally been “proven” – otherwise we’d be “mass-less”. (Not to be confused with “weight-less”). Add to your meccano set the various “forces”: 1 x strong nuclear force; 1 x weak nuclear force; plus 1 x electromagnetism; and you’re ready to start building atoms, which you can arrange into molecules, and heigh presto, you have matter! (At this point. most of us turn over, and go happily back to sleep. I firmly believe in the Principle of “Mind over Matter – if I don’t mind, it doesn’t matter).
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. The Standard Model is anything but simple, elegant, or anywhere near an “ultimate explanation”. So physicists now talk about “superstrings”, “(mem)branes”; and M Theory; and if you thought electrons were queer, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Any book on physics tends to become quickly incomprehensible (even to the authors, one suspects); dealing with such concepts as “imaginary time”; where things happen in 5 dimensional, 10 dimensional or 26 dimensional spaces. One suspects that every time a new particle or force is detected, researchers just add a new dimension or two. Simpler, from the naming point of view, but infinitely harder to even try to comprehend. In this Brave New World of particle physics, if a new theory isn’t totally incomprehensible, non-intuitive, and simply outrageous (as in provoking outrage) – then it clearly doesn’t grasp the imponderables we have to deal with.
For example, the Bogdanov theory (2002) was described thus: “either a work of genius or a hoax”. In fact, this endless search for an Ultimate Theory may be doomed to ultimate failure. Once we get our heads round the thought that the Space-Time Continuum (a.k.a the Universe as we know it) is not the be-all and end-all (i.e. the idea that God, for example, is outside the universe, or the possibility of co-existing “parallel universes”), then anything is possible.
I often toy with the idea that Lewis Carroll was teasing us with these concepts in his stories Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. But that can keep for another time. Suffice it to say that in the Hunting of the Snark (sooo close to quark) he alludes to a possibility that the Snark could be of a type called a “Boojum” (Boson?), which if encountered, “makes one vanish quite away”. Just like the things they mess with at CERN. Strange quarks, indeed.
Final thought: Every atom you posses has passed through at least a few stars, and millions of other creatures. So, the statistical probability is that you have at least a couple of million of the atoms that once belonged to Shakespeare, Mozart, or any other historical figure you care to be related to. Except Jesus Christ, according to the gospels. But we digress.
PS: And bear in mind that HTML, the “stuff” of which the internet is made, is a by-product of the work done at CERN, where they spend enormous amounts of money and electricity chasing those poor little particles around, searching for the “ultimate truth” – for physicists, anyway.
PPS: In some strange way, everything IS connected, but just how, beats me, and everyone else, apparently. Still, it’s comforting to know that, despite the best efforts of Politicians, Religions and Hollywood, “the truth is out there“.