Cometary Tales Blog,Hands-On Science On Aisle 42, Universe Components: One Will Make You Smaller

On Aisle 42, Universe Components: One Will Make You Smaller

 

Or

A Top-Down Search for the Strange Charm of Putting Up With Those Quarks at Bottom of the Universe

For part two of our universe-construction project, while the helium models dry, it’s time to delve into the depths of the sub-sub-atomic universe.

Consider those carefully-constructed model atoms.   Each contains protons, neutrons, and electrons.

As it turns out, with electrons, there are (so far as physics can determine at present) no smaller particles needed to build an electron.  Electrons are part of a group of  six elementary particles called leptons.  Some of these leptons–the neutrinos–were predicted to not even have any mass, but experiments have shown that while they are incredibly low-mass, neutrinos do have some mass.  Interestingly, these experiments leading to even more new developments in fundamental physics and the Standard Model theory.  Still, electrons are by far the most numerous leptons (at least in our corner of the multiverse.)

In our candy-based model, we have more than one proton crammed into in a nucleus.  Each of those protons has a positive charge, but we all know that objects with the same charge repel each other.  Why does the nucleus stay together?

In our model, of course, there is all that sticky candy.  But in the real atom, there is also something that, in its own way, makes protons stick together.  These other particles are one type of another class of matter, called mesons.  These strange, essential, particles are stable only inside the nucleus, where (like our sticky marshmallows) they act as a “glue” to hold protons and neutrons close together.

Given that extremely tiny leptons have been observed, as well as tiny mesons inside the nucleus, protons and neutrons may begin to seem too big to be elementary particles.  Sure enough, it turns out that protons and neutrons are also made of smaller particles.  And those mesons, too, are made of those same even-smaller particles.  And, while it took thirty years to search them all out, a total of six more fundamental particles (on top of the six leptons) have been found.  Most of the matter we know about only requires two of those particles–plus the electron–but modern physics predicted six, and sure enough, there are six of them.

Meet the QUARKS.  Their six kinds are: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.  Each kind comes in a matter form and an antimatter form.

Intriguingly, the terminology for “kinds” of quarks is flavors. Other characteristics of quarks and leptons include color, another clue to the pleasure scientists find in these discoveries.   For now, we’ll experiment with the flavors of quarks.  Unlike real quarks, we will use macroscopic objects that also happen to taste sweet.

As usual, if you’re working with youngsters, begin by reassuring everyone that there will be plenty of time to eat their quarks later.  Each person gets one each of the six flavors of candy…quarks. Because the candies will be handled a lot during the first stage, tell them not to open the wrappers yet.   Observe the candies.  One side has the brand name on it, and the other side is plain.  If we put the candy name-side up, we’ll call it a quark, and if it has the plain side up, we’ll call it an antiquark.

Quark vs Antiquark

A meson is formed by pairs of one quark and one antiquark.  Give the group some time to see just how many combinations can be made of such pairs.  (A few special mesons combine two or three such pairs, in quark combinations.)

A Small Set of Mesons

This will take some cooperation–participants will want to get together and different groups will organize their tests differently.  Meanwhile, if you have access to a whiteboard or poster paper, you can sketch out a list of simple mesons shown below.  For smaller (or older) groups, you can also pass out copies of this grid and let everyone check off the combinations as they are discovered.

quark antiquark candy (name) candy (plain)
bottom eta b b pineapple pineapple
Upsilon b b pineapple pineapple
charmed eta c c purple purple
D+ c d purple peppermint
D0 c u purple red
J/Psi c c purple purple
Strange D c s purple green
Charmed B b c purple pineapple
Kaon0 d s peppermint green
B0 d b peppermint pineapple
Phi s s green green
Strange B s b green pineapple
pion u d red peppermint
kaon+ u s red green
B+ u b red pineapple
Charged rho u d red peppermint
Kaon*+ u s red green

What’s important from this exercise is realizing that all of these two-quark combinations can really happen.  Some of the mesons are the ones that help stick nuclei together.  Others are found in outer space, as cosmic rays.  Others are only found when scientists smash other particles together to find out what they are made of.  Recently, the last of the mesons described by this model was detected by an international team of physicists, using the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in  Switzerland.  This prompted huge celebrations by physicists and the process inspired a documentary film about the search for the Higgs Boson, Particle Fever.

When I ran this project at BayCon in 2017, one of the young participants scanned the list above and said, “What about the top quark?”  Trust a science-fiction fan to spot an anomaly.  Indeed, none of the known mesons make use of the top quark, which is the most elusive one of all, and in some ways the most peculiar.  The top quark is extremely unstable–even more ephemeral than the strange, charm, and bottom quarks–and it requires a large particle accelerator to observe one. (Fermilab managed it first; now CERN‘s Large Hadron Collider holds the record.)  Even then, once produced, a top quark vanishes in 1/1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000th of a second.  The top quark is also amazingly massive, fueling the deep interest in the nature of mass itself, which many think is one of the functions of the Higgs boson, which itself has only recently been (tentatively) observed.  Scientists at CERN hope to use the relatively massive top quark as a test laboratory to verify their (provisional) Higgs boson observations.

Three-quark particles are called baryons–the most common of these are protons and neutrons.  The next step for our own quark exploration is to find the combination of up and down quarks that yields the proton and the one that forms a neutron.   Each person has 2 peppermint and 2 of one other color to play with. Each group can also pool resources (still keeping those candy wrappers on) to mix and match groups of three using only 2 colors of candy.

To sort out which of these combinations works requires one extra piece of information.  We know that an electron has a charge of -1, a proton has a charge of +1, and a neutron is neutral, with a charge of zero.   Another cool feature of quarks…and one of the hardest things their discoverers had to come to terms with…is that they have fractional charges.  Before quarks, everyone used to think of a charge…equal to the electric charge of an electron…as an indivisible thing.  Just like an atom.  But just as it has turned out that atoms aren’t indivisible, neither is charge.

Up quark’s charge:       +2/3

Down quark’s charge:   -1/3

So, with just a little arithmetic, we can find out which of our combinations makes a proton and which makes a neutron.  Here’s the cheat sheet:

uuu

2/3 + 2/3 + 2/3 = 2

Positive…but too much for a proton
ddd

(-1/3) + (-1/3) + (-1/3) = -1

Negative, so it can’t be a proton or a neutron.

Note:  it’s not an electron either–remember, an electron is already an elementary particle.

uud

or udu

or duu

2/3 + 2/3 + (-1/3) = 1

OK!  It’s a proton!
(Just a reminder…the order the quarks are listed in doesn’t matter.)
ddu

or dud

or udd

-1/3 + (-1/3) + 2/3 = 0

Yes!  We have discovered the neutron!

 

Aha, it’s a proton.

Aha, It’s a neutron!

So, the charge calculations show that protons and neutrons are made of two ups plus one down for a proton and two downs plus one up for a neutron.

It’s possible to have participants glue their protons and neutron quark groups together.  A dip on the water cup from the atomic marshmallow project will make a candy piece sticky.  However, these sticky messes will need to sit aside for a while to dry.  If your participants include young children, you might want to skip that possibility, as a glued-up stack of Life-Savers could be a choking hazard.

Speaking of glue, the same BayCon2017 participants also suggested some ideas for incorporating gluons into our model.  To cover the topic of quantum chromodynamics would be a fun challenge, but for the present, those lonely orange LifeSavers we’d set aside as those transient top quarks can be added between the red and white candies in our proton and neutron models to represent the color exchanges among the quarks.

So now we have established that everything in matter is made of tiny (and flavorful) points of dancing energy called quarks and leptons. How can we visualize the true relative sizes of these quarks, protons, nuclei, and atoms?

Poke a pin through a piece of paper and hold it up to the light, then pass it around, so everyone can see how tiny that hole is.   Think of that bright speck as an electron or a quark.  To be at the same scale, our helium nucleus would be about 3 feet across.  A handy meter-stick or yardstick will provide a sense of scale, but for drama, bring out a huge balloon (the 36-inch size).  It won’t be edible, but it will be fun to play with afterwards.  If that big old balloon is the tiny nucleus, then to build a whole helium atom we’d need a marshmallow about seven miles (ten kilometers) across!

So let’s check back on our atom model from the atomic marshmallow project.  It’s mostly nothing, just that airy, fluffy marshmallow.  Remember how thin the “shell” of the electron cloud is, and how surprisingly hard it is to notice the tiny nucleus once the two little protons and neutrons were placed inside.  Even so, in our model, the protons and neutrons are huge compared with the atom.  Imagine how fantastic the resulting candy treat would be–and how many people could enjoy it–if we’d tried to make this marshmallow atom model to scale.

You might also like to read:

Avoiding HyperboleAvoiding Hyperbole

OK, right, it’s been so long since the last post that even my backup program is writing me off as too far gone. Too bad, Updraft, back to work, you lazy batch of code.

True, some comets hare off to interstellar space on hyperbolic orbits. However, two or three things:
1) There’s much to be said for the sweet homey stability of an elliptical orbit.
2) On a hyperbola, there are two arms, and who’s to say if you’re on the right one?
3) My top speed is less than 2 m/sec whereas an escape trajectory on Earth demands moving at about 11,500 m/sec.
4) I’m not actually a comet, I’m a human being who is interested in comets both as astronomical objects and as metaphorical images.
5) That’s four or five things.

Aiee Hyperbola Wiki

Redlining on a hyperbola. Aieeee!

Stuff happens, and it’s not exactly a huge crime to neglect a blog that no-one is reading. Last year, I whined about the inconveniences of having a broken arm. Well, there’s worse stuff than a broken arm. Besides, I needed time to read other people’s websites. Like catching up on the doings at Gunnerkrig Court. Like reading anything about robots that turns up on IEEE Spectrum. Or reliving grad school days on Jorge Chan’s Ph.D. comic. Or vacillating between reading Allie Brosh’s hardcopy book or her online stories at Hyperbole-and-a-Half.

In the meantime, I’ve managed to keep up a little better on the easier-to-maintain Facebook & twitter side of things, under the Pixel Gravity moniker.

But it’s time to dump more stuff out on the world and see if anyone who isn’t a spammer notices.

Here’s the deal:  I’ve got a year’s worth of science projects for kids that I want to share.  Maybe they’ll be a book too, some day.  (Insert self-knowing laugh here.)  I’m a year behind on delivering my Grand Canyon stories & pictures, which I promised my fellow-travellers would be “up” by the end of last summer.   But there’s other stuff I want to address as well.  So there will be a little discipline applied, in a way that would help any of my imaginary readers look ahead for the next entry in a category of interest.

First week of the month:  One “Messy Monday” project

Second week:  One “Grand Canyon” entry–either a half-day of storytelling or a photo album.

Third week:  Science & fiction stuff–the science fairly topical, the fiction

Fourth week:  An extra week to play catch up, first on the Grand Canyon, and later on Messy Monday, but also a piece of flexible time for interesting stuff of the moment.  For instance, Memorial Day Weekend will yield four days of BayCon 2014.

Next up:  Comets in orbit…

 

 

 

What’s with the weird words?What’s with the weird words?

Translations In the Real World
(Photo by Tflanagan at KSU, Saudi Arabia,
Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

One of the first things people ask me when they read certain of my stories is “What’s the right way to pronounce all these weird words?”  My stock answer is:  “However you like! It’s all made up, whatever sounds right inside your head is fine by me.”

Starting the process of doing an audio book for All That Was Asked has forced me to face the fact that, well, really there is a “right” way.  For one thing, the story centers on language–in fact, the working title of the book was “Translations by Ansegwe.” In general, for the stories where I have a made-up culture with their own language or an “evolved” culture that’s grown from more-or-less familiar cultures but uses a language other than English as their root language, I do know how those words should be pronounced. I’m that wonky sort that blows off an entire afternoon at Worldcon to attend a linguistics workshop, so, well, that’s where I’m coming from. 

In the real world, I know French pretty well, I watch a lot of foreign-language TV (though of course I’m relying on subtitles), I live in place where I hear Spanish and Russian regularly, and I have technical-world acquaintances with a great variety of language “homes” from India to Europe to Africa to both Chinas.  I’ve struggled to learn a smattering of my culture-base language–Gaelic. And I grew up being hauled around to various places in the U.S. and England.  I even still “hear” (and alas for spell-checkers, spell) most English as Brit-style.  End result:  I love the interplay of languages and the way everyone talks. I do not claim to be a polyglot, but I’m a diligent researcher and I just love all those sounds.

In my writing, most of the problematic words are names, because I think of such stories as having been “translated” from the alien/alternate history language set.  Names tend to get left over after a translation, because even if I’m translating a story from French to English, I wouldn’t change “Tourenne” to “Terence” or “Gervais” to Gerald, because a) the names aren’t really the same and b) the sounds of names add the flavor of a language without requiring a reader to actually know a foreign tongue directly. Spoiler? My current work-in-progress has characters named Tourenne and Gervais, and they live in a francophone culture that doesn’t exist anywhere in the real world.

In the made-up language base for All That Was Asked, I have lots of names for people, place-names from more than one country in the alternate-universe world, and a few name-based terms.  (The academic types in the story have dreams of winning their version of the Nobel prize, so they talk about it a lot.  The Nobel prize is named for a person, but . . . it’s a thing.)  I wanted the central names to make sense, to have relateable sounds, and to have some commonalities.  For instance, in English we have a lot of names that end in ‘-y’.  I selected some sound elements that would fit into different names and tried to make them sound like they came from a distinct self-contained culture–except for a few names I made up specifically to sound like another culture, in the same world. 

I decided on a family-personal naming order that made sense for the culture–Family first, Personal second, and most people refer to each other and address each other by their personal names, because everyone knows what family everyone else belongs to.  And I made names longer than we’re used to in English.  In our culture “power names” tend to be short, in theirs, most people have multisyllable names, and powerful people tend to have longer names.

For other sets of words in this story, ones that are “translated” to English, I “hear” the words in British/European English rather than American English, because that fits better with the social style of the people and gives it a little bit of distance for American readers.  It may sound really fussy–especially for such a short little book–but I think having a clear auditory sense going into it helped me with building the alien culture.  I just have to hope it carries through to readers and listeners–not a burden to cope with but an added feature of the story.

In my next post, I’ll give you a blow-by-blow pronunciation guide for All That Was Asked, with a few background bits to liven it up a bit.

Listening to BooksListening to Books

It’s the new old thing, isn’t it?

Listening to stories.

We played books on tape (remember tapes?) for our children during long car rides. Our oldest taught himself to read at preschool by playing tapes and reading through the accompanying books.

And now it’s become of the main ways people get their stories–in audio books, so they can listen in the car, while exercising, or while ignoring the rest of the people trapped in their house during a pandemic.

I’ve now had the experience of helping to create a new audiobook–the audio edition of All That Was Asked has just come out on Audible (accessible via Amazon, too, of course). If you’re not already on Audible, there’s a free trial offer running that you can take advantage of (and keep the books to collect during your trial, even if you cancel).

We should have the iTunes version out Any Day Now.

I suppose this is a tiny bit like being a playwright and seeing your script being acted out on stage for the first time. First, you squeal, “eeeeeeeee, someone is reading my words!” and then you whine, “heyyyy, that’s not how you say ‘Ansegwe’!”

We have a wonderful reader, Trevor Wilson, who was amazingly patient with all my OCD-level requests for adjustments…especially with all those alien names to learn in this book. I know–they’re made-up names, right, so should it matter? Well, yes, since they all go together to help create a sound-image of an alien culture. I’m so happy Trevor made time to put his mark on this book. He had some really fun, creative takes on ways to make individual characters jump out of the text.

Trevor isn’t just a narrator, he’s a voice actor. That makes a world of difference. To create, in sound, the character of Ansegwe, he came up with three distinct voices–Ansegwe the memoirist, looking back on his youthful escapades, the younger Ansegwe, in dialogue, and the thoughts in young Ansegwe’s head. Each character, major and minor, has their own distinctive voice. He even gave two brothers–who only drop by in a few scenes–a unique, shared accent that still cracks me up, after, what? fifteen listens?

So if you like your books in sound format, mine is there for you, now. Enjoy!

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