Playing God in the Laboratory: The Particle That Lead to Discovery of New Form of Matter
Subatomic particles are a gateway into a world of mystery and uncertainty. In this fuzzy land, our usual assumptions about matter and energy are turned upside down. At this level, the laws of physics begin to change and matter as we know it ceases to exist.
In 2013, two teams of scientists working independently in Japan and China established the existence of a new subatomic particle with unusual characteristics. This happened during explorations designed to elicit further information about a particle known as Y(4260), which was freshly discovered in 2005. The Y(4260) particle didn’t seem to fit with existing models, suggesting there was more going on in the subatomic realm than physicists had previously suspected.
When studying the decay of Y(4260) more deeply, a further surprise was uncovered. Scientists working in each team found an unexplained burst of energy that was equivalent to the weight of a proton (remember, in quantum physics matter and energy are interchangeable). From this anomaly, they were able to deduce the existence of a brand new particle they labeled Z(3900).
Because it was four times as large as a proton, they realized it must be made up of four quarks, which makes it the first four-quark particle, or tetraquark, ever discovered. This experimental result was repeated more than 400 times, proving that the Z(3900) is real and the findings of the scientists were authentic.
How New Particles are Made
The nucleus of an atom is comprised of protons and neutrons. Protons and neutrons are in turn made up of elementary particles called quarks, which are the smallest identifiable bits of matter believed to exist in nature.
Larger particles made out of quarks are known as hadrons. Protons and neutrons are the most notable hadrons, since they are core constituents of matter and are stable.
But they are not the end of the story. When working with particle accelerators called colliders, scientists are able to create many new, different and exotic hadrons. In a typical collider, electron or positron beams are accelerated up to speeds approaching that of light, before being smashed into a stationary target. In the debris left over brand new hadrons can form, and what separates them from protons and neutrons is that they are not stable. These hadrons will blink into and out of existence in a tiny fraction of a time (something in the neighborhood of 10 -23 seconds is their normal lifespan). .
The world’s most powerful collider is the Large Hadron Collider. This technological marvel is a part of the accelerator complex built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) at their high-energy physics research facility in Switzerland. This accelerator uses protons, while the research teams that discovered Z(3900) were using electron-positron colliders.
The Exotic Side of the Physical World
Quarks are divided up into six different types: up, down, top, bottom, charm and strange. These quark types are known as flavors, which are determined by variations in mass, spin and charge.
In addition to protons and neutrons, the other primary particle that makes up the atom is the electron, which carries a negative charge. Electrons are not made up of quarks, but are instead comprised of an elementary particle called leptons. Neutrinos are the lepton version of neutrons, with each carrying a neutral charge. However, unlike neutrons they seldom interact with other particles and are not incorporated into the structure of atoms.
Each of the quark flavors has an anti-matter equivalent. Should a quark and an anti-quark attempt to occupy the same place in space at the same time, the result would be mutual annihilation. Surprisingly, quarks and anti-quarks can actually combine to form particles, as long as they follow different orbits. Such a combination would never be found in the stable, material world as we experience it. However, in the realm of collider-manufactured ephemeral particles such arrangements are possible.
Z(3900) is one collider particle believed to have such a structure. Getting the formula pinned down exactly is not an easy task. But physicists who’ve studied the Z(3900) believe it is composed of a charm and anti-charm pair and an up and anti-down quark, making it fully balanced between matter and anti-matter.
The worlds created by particle accelerators are ghostly realms, where minuscule bits of pseudo-physical matter pop in and out of existence so fast they barely seem to exist. What happens there seems to bear no resemblance to events in the real world.
Nevertheless, developments in quark-land follows certain predictable rules based on the apparently iron-clad rules of quantum physics. Surprises still occur because quantum physics is as endlessly complex as existence itself.
Playing God in the Laboratory?
It may seem as if what goes on in the subatomic world has no direct relevance to our lives. This is true of quantum physics in general, and especially true when we contemplate the existence of temporary particles like Z(3900).
But we should remember that from the perspective of the universe as a whole (if we can assume for just a moment that the universe itself is conscious), our individual lives wouldn’t seem to amount to much, either. Our accomplishments, such as they are, would have no relevance outside our own little self-created worlds. In a universe that has existed for billions of years already, and should go on for billions more, what impact could a human being who lives for only for a few decades possibly make?
We live in a galaxy that is 100,000 light-years across in diameter and virtually eternal, and that galaxy is embedded in a universe with billions of such galaxies separated by unimaginable divides. We, on the other hand, are less than two metres tall and a metre wide and expire in less than a century. From the universe’s perspective, we are like unstable hadrons that blink in and out of existence in a flash. We are temporary remnants of the ultimate super-collider, the Big Bang, virtually unknown and unseen from a cosmic viewpoint.
And yet we are conscious, and vividly so. We experience our lives as meaningful and contemplate the marvels of the universe.
What if the doctrine of panpsychism is correct, and all matter is in some sense conscious and aware? Then the ephemeral particles created in colliders by particle physicists might somehow be just as alive as we are, living and dying and wondering, worshiping the “Gods” that created them without realizing those Gods fail to recognize them as alive.
Could we also be side effects of a science experiment taking place at a level of awareness far more advanced than our own? Is something transcendent creating us for purposes entirely different than anything we could imagine?
This is all just speculation, of course. But perhaps the quarks, leptons and hadrons are busy speculating about us, too, just as we speculate about what our creators (if they exist) might be up to.
By Nathan Falde