This is a must for any particle physics enthusiast: collect your own particles in the form of a soft, cuddly plushie. From the theoretical Higgs boson to the well known electron, all the quantum particles from the Standard Model can be browsed and chosen for your personal collection. The Particle Zoo is the brain child of Los Angeles-based Julie Peasley, who is making it her duty to give our beloved particles a face and personality. For example: due to his popularity, the Higgs particle is a “bit of a snob” and therefore has a huge smile on his face (after all, wouldn’t you be really smug if everyone wanted to interview you?); the muon (or heavy electron) “lives fast and dies young“; or, hilariously, the unobserved graviton “has big legs for jumping branes.” All the particles have a story and a loving personality. Who would have thought quantum physics could be so much fun?
When I first stumbled across The Particle Zoo website I was in awe of the effort Particle Zookeeper Julie Peasley had put into her creations. On reading the descriptions of each particle’s personalities I realised these fun characters were more than just for entertainment purposes; they were a way to communicate the complex physics behind the quantum world to an audience who didn’t necessarily have a specialist background, but would appeal greatly to physicists too.
“If the particle toys can generate an interest in physics and the subatomic world, I’m grateful. At the very least now all my friends and family know what a boson is,” Julie responded when I asked about the educational uses for these cute creations. Teachers, professors and science educators have ordered whole sets of the particles for use in their physics lessons, proving that The Particle Zoo is not simply ‘just for fun.’
Identifying a face and personality for all the quarks, leptons, bosons, nucleons and theoreticals is not a task to be taken lightly, however. Every characteristic of the professionally-made particles must be likened to their real-world counterpart, thereby ensuring scientific accuracy. If the particle is heavy, it will be filled with something weighty, like gravel (check out the vital statistics for the Higgs boson for example); if it is massless, it is filled with light weight poly fill (such as the photon).
But there is a lot more to it than matching the physical characteristics of the quanta with the plushie. Julie realised after a compelling lecture by Dr. Lawrence Krauss at UCLA that subatomic particles could have different “personalities” that could be embodied through her talents as an artist (she holds a Fine Arts degree from the University of Colorado) and her lifelong interest in cosmology, the quantum mechanics and theoretical physics. After Krauss’ lecture on The Beginning and End of Time, she hit the textbooks, finding Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages to be a key element to her enthusiasm to giving the particles a face. Each particle has a face that reflects its “personality” – take the neutron with a neutral expression, or the hard-to-detect neutrinos who are all dressed up like little ninjas; every one is designed with a subtle touch. In reference to the light-hearted organization, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Hadrons, or simply “PETH” (a group set up to protect the rights of hadrons in particle colliders. After all, how do we know protons don’t feel pain?), Julie said, “I love the idea of hadron’s rights, that is hilarious. Actually, I’m quite jealous of the little hadrons who get to collide at the LHC. They get to go 99.999999% the speed of light. How cool is that?”
“The particles seem to be catching on more and more. I had a “special” on the Higgs particle all day on September 10 to celebrate the startup. I sold a record amount of particles in a short time. So I am now only $999,999,689 away from buying my own LHC.” – Particle Zookeeper Julie Peasley.
Although the LHC has suffered a technical hitch, and the first particle collisions aren’t expected to commence until spring 2009, The Particle Zoo will allow you to explore the quantum world for the time being. I for one have ordered my very own Higgs boson in preparation for my celebrations for when the first particles are collided by the LHC.
“I had a collection of the Giant Microbes toys and thought if people enjoyed those, maybe they would enjoy taking it a step further (well, to be honest, many orders of magnitude further). I honestly had no idea if anyone would be interested but I’m happy to say I’ve gotten over and beyond the positive response I could have imagined.” – Particle Zookeeper Julie Peasley.
So for now, any Higgs boson discovery will fall to Julie’s skilled hands in her “sweatshop of one” until the real force carrier is either proven or disproven in a few months time…
(Warning: Be sure not to leave any anti-particles mingling with the “normal” particles on the same shelf… the resulting annihilation may leave you swamped with fluffy photons…)