The curious case of the vanishing quark

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FINNEGANS WAKE has a reputation for being one of the most difficult novels in the English language. Written by James Joyce over 17 years, it blends invented words with real phrases in grammar-defying constructions. The final line ends mid-sentence – only for you to realise that the words that should come next are the ones at the book’s beginning. Some say it is Joyce’s attempt at recreating a dream. Others claim that it contains no meaning at all.

It might seem odd, then, that a nonsense word from this most ungraspable of books should have given its name to a particle known as the building block of reality: the quark. In modern physics, a quark is what you would find if you were able to take a piece of matter and cut it in half again and again until you could cut no more.

Quarks are as fundamental as anything can be. But they are also exceedingly weird. They have strange quantum properties known as flavour and spin. They crave each other’s company, clustering together in pairs or triplets. And they have a special sort of charge that comes not in the positive or negative variety, but in colours.

And now, in a twist to rival that of any experimental novel, it seems quarks may not actually exist. According to tantalising new research, they may instead be an illusion, the product of quantum trickery we don’t yet fully understand. Perhaps the absurdist origin of their name is apt after all. The search for reality’s foundations may turn out to be as meaningless and insubstantial as a half-remembered dream.

Read the rest of this story at New Scientist here.

Picture credit: Takuma Nakagawa, Flickr.