Thursday, 29 October 2009

Talking Particles

Imagine particles could talk. That a gluon pokes its head out of table to chat about the hard work it takes to get others to stick together. Sounds implausible? Anything is possible - even in the real, let alone the quantum world.

That is especially if you watched an obscure French children`s programme called Télé Chat in the 1980s. Which is precisely what Henri Bachachou did. And look at him now. Muon-mad, this Parisian works at ATLAS, the biggest of the experiments at CERN, with over 2000 people worldwide exploring the mystery of matter.

Fed on a diet of Télé Chat, with its lead characters, an ostrich and a cat, and its talking and walking particle zoo, Henri is a particle physicist, with an equally playful mind. But when you get him on the subject - or should it be the matter - of the muon, he becomes messenaic and no longer mild mannered and polite. For him, they are THE particle. In character, they are like an electron, but are 200 x heavier, and in fact their weight is in between an electron and a proton. Every second a 100 million muons are falling from the sky in cosmic rays. And because they are heavy, they can be easily detected, leaving very clear tracks, which are also known as spark lines, because they give off an electric charge.

Which also means that they are invaluable when they are artificially recreated in the LHC. Easily identifiable, they are also one of the clues for finding the Higgs, which is thought to give off muons. And they can pass through matter too and that includes your own body. In fact, a muon hole may be opening at your feet this very nano second - it's just that you cant see it - as muons cascade from the sky and fall from between floor to floor to floor. The world is opening up before you. You just don't know it.

That's how it feels when you are talking about particles. Suddenly you see such endless possibilities in the material world that nothing seems material ever again.

'Have you ever wondered why physicists are so indecisive?' asks Henri. 'Take them to an ice cream counter like gelatomania and you will find they cant make up their minds because they know the whole range of tastes available - and are thinking of the new ones which aren't there too.'

It all makes sense somehow. Talk the particular about a particle, and you have entered into a self-contained fairy tale, which contains its own internal logic of actions and context, but equally could very well not exist at all. And that is on this symmetrical side of the universe. Talk asymmetry, and then we really are talking Alice in Wonderland and through the looking glass. You enter the world of squawking squarks and smuons and sneutrinos...a Finnegans wake of words and playfulness which seems to make no sense at all....

...which may be why the elusive Higgs, whether it is prooved to exist or not, comes as a bit of a relief. A particle with a human name. For the ultimate invisible particle it has a particularly grounded name. But still, let's talk particles...I will find some more physicists who can do just that...and keep you posted.

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