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See Inside Special Editions Volume 22, Issue 2s

The Inner Life of Quarks

What if the smallest bits of matter actually harbor an undiscovered world of particles?


The universe is a complex and intricate place. We can move easily through air and yet not through a wall. The sun transmutes one element to another, bathing our planet in warmth and light. Radio waves have carried a man's voice to Earth from the surface of the moon, whereas gamma rays can inflict fatal damage on our DNA. On the face of it, these disparate phenomena have nothing to do with one another, but physicists have uncovered a handful of principles that fuse into a theory of sublime simplicity to explain all this and much more. This theory is called the Standard Model of particle physics, and it encapsulates the electromagnetic forces that make a wall feel solid, the nuclear forces that govern the sun's power plant, and the diverse family of light waves that both make modern communications possible and threaten our well-being.

The Standard Model is one of the most strikingly successful theories ever devised. In essence, it postulates that two classes of indivisible matter particles exist: quarks and leptons. Quarks of various kinds compose protons and neutrons, and the most familiar lepton is the electron. The right mix of quarks and leptons can make up any atom and, by extension, any of the different types of matter in the universe. These constituents of matter are bound together by four forces—two familiar ones, gravity and electromagnetism, and the less familiar strong and weak nuclear forces. The exchange of one or more particles known as bosons mediates the latter three forces, but all attempts to treat gravity in the microrealm have failed.

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