The Breakfast Table

The Race for the Quark

Dear Matt,

Well, I see the Times (the one in New York) picked up on the Brookhaven story this morning with the headline “Long Island Survives Big Bang.” It’s actually kind of unusual, I think, to report that a big physics experiment has merely begun–these things usually take forever to unfold. And even when the whole thing is over, a story would generally appear only if something really great was discovered. All the conspiracy theories about congealing the universe into a glob of strangelet gunk or swallowing it in an omnivorous black hole only served to get the project much more press than it would normally enjoy. The public information office at the lab must be happy.

Actually, as James Glanz points out in his piece, there is some juicy politics behind this search for quark-gluon soup. (The reason that physicists find this concoction appetizing is because, in the frigid conditions now prevailing billions of years after the big bang, quarks are solidly stuck inside bigger particles–held together by the appropriately named gluons–and can’t ever pop out. In a weird way, not finding quarks has been evidence that the reigning theory of matter, the dully named Standard Model, is true. In a superhot quark-gluon plasma, the elusive particles would float about freely.) Anyway, a rival European lab, CERN, pulled out all the stops on its publicity machine in February, announcing that it had accumulated the first hints of quark-plasma gumbo in its own accelerator. You should see the splashy Web site they put up to promote this: “New State of Matter Created at CERN.” It comes complete with animations of particles colliding like pinballs and earnest physics tutorials. (Great stuff, actually.) There was even a Web cast of the press conference. At the time, the scientists at Brookhaven grumbled that CERN’s evidence was pretty scant and released prematurely to upstage Brookhaven. (Was this another of those “end runs” you mentioned?) We’re going to talk about the story behind this story later this month at our Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop.

I just love quark politics. Ever since Murray Gell-Mann pulled the name from Finnegans Wake (“Three quarks for Muster Mark!”), the saga has been very entertaining.