Hark, the quark!

Another key added to the universal key ring

(Gazette column, distributed by NYT wire, May 1995)


By James A. Haught

The tentative discovery of the long-sought top quark -- the final particle in the "standard model" of matter -- is heady stuff for us science addicts.

It imparts a marvelous high, the intoxication of peering into the mysterious heart of reality. It provides another glimpse of the secret code governing the universe.

The deeper you look, the more you feel that everything that exists is a miracle.

The international team of 440 physicists at Fermilab in Illinois didn't find the top quark -- they created it, following Einstein's famous law that matter can be converted into energy, and vice versa. They collided protons and antiprotons with such ferocity that some of the impact energy turned into the heavy particle -- like two rifle bullets colliding and producing a cannonball. (At least the physicists think they did. Top quarks survive only a hundred-billionth of a trillionth of a second, then disintegrate in a shower of smaller particles that leave tracks in a detector.)

The discovery has little to do with life on Earth. The top quark doesn't exist on this planet. In fact, it hasn't existed anywhere since the Big Bang, about 15 billion years ago.

Nearly everything on this planet is made chiefly of three particles: up and down quarks, which form the protons and neutrons in the atomic nucleus, and electrons, which whir about the nucleus, streak through electrical wires and cascade in lightning bolts. Ghostly neutrinos, obscure phantoms that penetrate the whole planet, also are involved.

Recreating the top quark in a collider has no practical value. It won't improve electronics or medicine. But it's a breakthrough in the quest for comprehension that has been going on since the Babylonian astronomers and Thales. It's part of the search for understanding -- akin to learning that galaxies exist outside the Milky Way.

If the new discovery survives future testing, it will verify the 20-year-old "standard model" theory which says matter derives from 12 fundamental particles grouped in three families, each containing two quarks and two "leptons" such as the electron and neutrino. Some of these particles exist only in stars, or existed at early moments of the universe.

Why 12? Nobody knows. As with many enigmas, science can't answer the "why?" But merely learning what exists is a triumph of the mind.

Many young people go through a seekers-of-truth phase. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? When it was my turn, I felt that the explanations of Oral Roberts, the Ayatollah Khomeini, the pope and such weren't for me. I plunged into philosophy -- but eventually concluded it's a dead end, with no real answers.

Only physics seems a valid search for trustworthy truth. Although science can't answer the ultimate questions, it's the most honest attempt to grasp what's graspable. It reveals a hidden order ruling all matter, all life, all actions.

Our palpable world is built from the invisible and intangible. Approach an atom, and you'd find nothing solid -- just a cloud of whizzing electrons, like the blur of an airplane propellor, with the nucleus a remote speck at the center. Approach the nucleus and the vagueness would recur, with the protons and neutrons yielding to vastly smaller quarks.

Equally mysterious are gravity, pulling our mammoth planet in a 360-degree turn each year -- and radiation, moving at the speed of light in every direction in every millimeter of space -- and the awesome power locked in atoms, ready to unleash a Hiroshima blast -- and the uncanny ability of the double-helix DNA molecule to replicate itself and make worms, trees, dinosaurs and people.

One by one, these enigmas have been pinpointed by science, revealing a web of rules governing everything that exists. The late physicist Heinz Pagels commented:

"The existence of this cosmic code -- the laws of material reality as confirmed by experience -- is the bedrock faith that moves the natural scientist. The scientist sees in that code the eternal structure of reality, not as imposed by man or tradition but as written into the very substance of the universe.''

And scholar Jacob Bronowski wrote:

"We are a scientific civilization. That means a civilization in which knowledge and its integrity are crucial. Science is only a Latin word for knowledge.... Knowledge is our destiny.''

If the Fermilab finding holds up, knowledge has taken another stride.