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In search of the charmed quark

Only God knows why I am going in search of the charm quark. I wouldn’t have bothered to know what a quark is, leave alone the charmed one, had it not been for my fear of the laws governing the physical world.

It took me nearer to two decades after I came across the word ‘quark’, to really dig out what it really meant. Till recently (I am glad to be ignorant of this, as it has kept me sane), I considered protons, neutrons and electrons as fundamental or elementary particles – those that were further indivisible. I never kept track of my elementary sciences, and recently discovered that there is a standard model of particle physics, and that newer elementary particles were discovered as late as in year 2012.

There are broadly two types of elementary particles, fermions and bosons. Fermions are mainly associated with matter, while bosons are associated with interactive forces. I realized to my great surprise that protons and neutrons are types of hadrons, which are made up of ‘quarks’, a sub-category of fermions.

Each fermion has intrinsic properties like electric charge, colour charge, spin and mass. Most of us know what an anti-virus is, but what about anti-particles? So, these must hate particles like scum. Anti-particles have similar mass, but opposite electric charge.

Strangely quarks, despite being elementary particles, cannot exist in isolation. How could this be possible, I tried to question myself – elementary, but not singular? I found the reason, a supposedly simple one, to be due to a phenomenon called ‘colour confinement’. What the heck, I thought. Colour is associated with reflection or dispersion of a specific wavelength of light from the surface of an object, not from its entrails. When I looked up how or why colour could be confined, I found that there was no clear explanation for this. The nearest that I could understand was that – if two quarks (please remember that they are always together) try to separate, their colour charge tends to keep them together. First colour confinement; now colour charge – I was visualizing quarks as fireworks by now.

When I dug deeper, I found that quarks are of six flavours (why not types?). What now, did someone really taste these damned particles? The flavours are up, down, top, bottom, strange, charm. I now visualized Einstein and his strewn-up hairstyle and realized that scientists can equate tastes to directions equally as much as to abstractions.

With so much of mundane stuff, it would be unwise not to mention about a type of boson – Higg’s Boson, referred to as the God particle. From the name, you can bet that it is very unlike scientists to name it that. I am serious, it really wasn’t named that way. The name originates from a paper titled The Goddamn Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, what is the Question? which was written with an intent to seek funding from the US government to invest in an expensive facility to find that particle. The publisher insisted the offending word to be replaced with God to make it less controversial. It ended up being sensational anyway. To think that scientists don’t believe in anything till they have seen it. The particle discovered in 2012 is supposed to have unimaginable properties – in case you find one under your desk, please let CERN or Fermilab (world’s largest particle physics labs) know.

Just to conclude what I started with – to find where the charmed quark existed in nature, this quark exists in hadrons called mesons. Why charm quark in meson, while up and down in protons and neutrons, I couldn’t figure out.

You would think I was being very sceptical about science here. However, the search for the charmed quark took me deeper into the enchanting world of particle physics and made me inquisitive to the ‘finer’ details of nature. I can now look forward to someone discovering that quarks may have a smell as well, and name them as fragrant, fruity, mint, or pungent.

Girish Kamplimath

Girish is an Indian entrepreneur-turned-author who cannot tell what time it is - because he does not wear a watch. He loves to write, travel and share his views on a wide range of topics - occasionally critical, but more often to find better alternatives.

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