Strange Quarks

This past weekend’s March for Science (hopefully) had all of us thinking about the many advances we have seen – just in our own lifetimes –  in a variety of scientific fields. It also made me think of the discoveries yet to come.

If anyone reading this post just happened to be a fellow student with me during high school or college Physics, please know that I am not claiming any sort of mastery on the subject. In the spirit of full disclosure, my high school Physics teacher once set up a contraption in front of the class involving a box fan and a platform with wheels. He then put me on the spot by asking, “Sarah, if I turn on the fan, which direction will the cart move?”

“That way, ” I said, pointing left.

Why would you think that?” Mr. Hare asked, totally confounded. It was apparent by the look in his eyes that he was questioning where he had gone wrong in his life and whether all his years of attempting to mold young minds had been for naught.

What I’m saying is, I’m pretty pathetic when it comes to Physics. But Quantum Physics – the branch of Physics that deals broadly with energy and momentum and was developed by guys like Albert Einstein – is just so damn interesting! Or, I should say given my extremely limited knowledge on the subject, the implications of it are so damn interesting. Widely known as the  branch of science that lead to the development of the atomic bomb, it also led scientists to more humanitarian musings such as questioning our very reality, our understanding of time, and whether matter (the physical stuff in the world) influences consciousness or vice versa!  I think the thing I might find most intriguing about Quantum Physics is that the really, really, REALLY smart folks who study the field are still perplexed by it.

Take elementary particles, for example. (No, no – please try to stay awake! I promise this will be brief!) Atoms are the teeny, tiny building blocks of everything in the Universe. At one point in time, scientists thought that atoms were the smallest particles around. (The word “atom” comes from a Greek word meaning “unable to cut”.) When I was a student we were taught about the even teenier and tinier particles that make up atoms: protons, electrons, and neutrons. And they were the smallest things known to man. (Or at least they were the smallest things my Physics teachers thought my feeble mind could potentially comprehend.) Eventually, of course, scientists discovered that there were EVEN SMALLER particles called quarks, and they dubbed one of those quarks “strange” because it caused matter to behave in a way that scientists couldn’t explain – and still can’t to this day.

What the hell do strange quarks have to do with anything? Well, the short answer is I don’t know. But their discovery does have some interesting implications for us humans.  There are incredibly intelligent individuals in this world who are building on the work of other incredibly intelligent individuals who came before them. Scientists live in an all-consuming state of thought and inquiry as they attempt to make sense of the physical world, and yet they are still discovering that there are forces at work that they haven’t even begun to comprehend. Like, physical forces that cause physical matter to actually physically move in ways they don’t understand and cannot predict. And they don’t know why. Some scientists have gone so far as to suggest that quarks may be evidence of the existence of other dimensions. Who knows? It’s a wild world out there…

We regular ol’ humans experience something like this too in our everyday lives. Have you ever found yourself with a new – seemingly random –  curiosity about something or a new desire to visit a certain place or an unexplainable antsy-ness to change some major part of your life? I know you have, we all have. Sometimes, if it doesn’t require too much effort on our part, we indulge our strange new desire. Sometimes we find ourselves thinking or moving in ways we can’t really explain, which may yield strange looks and endless questioning from those who know and love us. But a lot of the time, we keep on keepin’ on with our lives and push those desires to the periphery.

My question is: where do those notions come from? What force is behind them? And are we maybe supposed to investigate a little further?

Those little inklings surely mean something. Maybe they will lead us to a true calling in life? Maybe they will lead us to people we are meant to meet in our life? Maybe they will lead to a new discovery for humankind? I don’t know why exactly, but we must have a sense of curiosity for a reason. There is another force at play here that we have yet to identify.

I’d like to encourage you to explore it a little. Follow that unknown force a little ways and see where it is leading you. This force is undoubtedly the source of human creativity and it has lead us as a species to the discoveries of gravity, DNA, and chocolate. Pretty powerful stuff if you ask me. (Disclaimer: If your curiosities are leading you to become a serial killer or to set your cheating ex’s new car ablaze, please do not follow. Instead, might I suggest taking yourself offline and into the nearest psychologist’s office or maybe even your local police department. We’re not setting out to do anyone any harm here.)

Please understand that I’m not saying that we all have the ability to be the next Einstein, but I know for sure that we all have the ability to contribute something of value to our fellow man and I strongly suspect that in order to find our individual greatest contribution, we must first submit to forces beyond our understanding.

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