For Quark Hunters, A Minute Surprise

IN 1964, IN ONE OF THE great conceptual leaps of modern science, physicists Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig asserted that six fundamental entities, which they called ""quarks,'' make up most of the substance of matter. Having proved this on paper, they turned it over to experimental physicists to verify -- a process that was completed only last year at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill.

Then experiments at Fermilab began to yield results that called into question the essence of the quark, which is its indivisibility. Quarks are never observed directly, only deduced by observing collisions between protons and antiprotons in a particle accelerator. According to a paper made public last week, certain results suggested that quarks may actually be composed of even smaller and more fundamental particles. If true -- and we won't know for years, if ever -- this raises the disturbing possibility that the universe will never surrender its ultimate material, that beneath every level of particles lurks another, still more esoteric and inaccessible. For theoretical physicists, the implications are even worse. If the Fermilab results hold up, Boston University physicist Kenneth Lane says, ""this will be the first time experiment has outpaced theory in over 20 years, and boy, will it have done it.''

For Quark Hunters, A Minute Surprise | News