Friday, October 22, 2021

Building Blocks


Sand Tufa at Mono Lake

They thought physics was dead more than a hundred years ago. Before Max Planck postulated the quantum. Before Einstein explained the photoelectric effect. Long before dark energy and dark matter. And way, way before double-charm tetraquarks!

From Quanta Magazine: “The unexpected discovery of the double-charm tetraquark highlights an uncomfortable truth. While physicists know the exact equation that defines the strong force … they can rarely solve this strange, endlessly iterative equation, so they struggle to predict the strong force’s effects.”

I love it that physicists are stuck with an equation they can rarely solve, that physics is not dead, and that nature is still bending minds, thank you very much. The writer goes on to explain that the tetraquark they discovered was surprisingly stable—because it lasted 12 sextillionths of a second!

And here I am thinking a flash sync of 1/250th of a second is blink-of-an-eye fast. Of course in the context of atomic physics it would be ridiculous to even call a blinking eye “fast.” Anything that took as long as an eye-blink to happen would probably put a particle physicist to sleep!

A tempting internal hyperlink in the above article took me to a page about protons, which reminded me of a Star Trek: Next Generation episode that I recently watched on Amazon Prime (“When the Bough Breaks”). When this kid who’s maybe 12 years old was scolded by his dad for ditching his calculus homework, I hoped that they would eventually show the kid why calculus is useful. Alas, they missed their chance. Maybe the writers themselves didn’t know either.

Not only did we not learn calculus when I was in 7th grade (the year after Apollo 11 landed on the moon), we didn’t learn about quarks either, much less tetraquarks. An atom was a neutron, plus protons and electrons, and that was that. So I thought it was funny when the linked article started out saying, “We learn in school that a proton is a bundle of three elementary particles called quarks—two ‘up’ quarks and a ‘down’ quark, whose electric charges (+2/3 and -1/3, respectively) combine to give the proton its charge of +1. But that simplistic picture glosses over a far stranger, as-yet-unresolved story.”

I love that the proton story I learned about has become passé, but you’ll have to read the article to see how mind-blowing the “as-yet-unresolved story” is. How intricate and mysterious this beautiful world is.

October Sunrise, Mono Lake

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