Sciency Words: Particle Zoo

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Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words.  Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific word to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s word is:


At some point in the last century, scientists thought they had a pretty good grasp on all the subatomic particles.  They knew about protons, neutrons, and electrons, and they thought they understood more or less how these particles interacted.

Then they discovered the photon and the neutrino and the positron and six different kinds of quarks and a few vector bosons and the Higgs boson and the pion and kaon and gluon… this list can go on for awhile.  Particle physics went from being relatively simple to frustratingly complicated very quickly.

Many of these particles cannot be observed directly.  Some have never been observed at all but are predicted to exist by elaborate, mathematical models.  The existence of the Higgs boson, for example, was only recently confirmed by experiment.

There are literally hundreds of different subatomic particles, many of them composite structures made from other subatomic particles.  Some of these particles are truly bizarre, as different from one another as elephants and crocodiles, giraffes and hippopotami.

Some physicists find this embarrassing and derisively refer to the still-growing list of particles as the “particle zoo.”  I prefer to think of this so-called zoo as a beautiful reminder that the universe is far more complicated and interesting than we humans can possibly imagine.

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