THE HUNTING OF THE QUARK: A Tree Story of Modern Physics by Michael Riordan

THE HUNTING OF THE QUARK: A Tree Story of Modern Physics

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Here a physicist with first-hand experience chasing quarks at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) relates the high points of the search for those elusive subatomic particles. First believed to be ideal constructs--mathematical entities that fit abstract equations--quarks took on new life when experimentalists at SLAC deduced that pinpoint-like objects in protons were deflecting high-energy electrons. Riordan builds a suspenseful tale around the neck-and-neck race between MIT/Brookhaven (Sam Ting) and Stanford (Burton Richter) in discovering the J/psi particle: a new heavy particle whose existence could best be captained as the product of a pair of quarks with the property of ""charm."" That discovery, plus subsequent results of collider experiments elsewhere, swelled the tide of belief: Quarks exist; they come in different ""flavors,"" each with 3 colors; they, plus at least 6 types of leptons (electrons, meutrinos and other light-weight particles) are truly at the heart of matter. Never mind that not a single quark has been isolated, there are good theoretical reasons why quarks lie like fish trapped inside the fishbowl of the larger nucleons they compose. Their ""footprints"" have been found, as well as tracks of ""gluons,"" the carriers of the strong force that binds nuclear particles together. Physics today no longer seethes with controversy, Riordan remarks. There are a few holdouts and a lot of theorizing about superstrings and grand unified theories, but overall acceptance of the ""Standard Model""--reconciling idealist and realist quark theories--means that we have entered an era of ""normal science,"" as Thomas Kuhn would say. Riordan's epilogue is eloquent on this point, as well as on the nature of objective/subjective science, and the importance of language. Indeed, readers will find other popularists (e.g., Parker, Search For A Supertheory, p. 1141) more accessible in terms of the science, but turn to Riordan for a close-in view and astute commentary on a pivotal period in 20th-century physics.

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 1987
Publisher: Simon & Schuster