Let's get this straight: protons and neutrons, once thought
to be the smallest particles of matter, being components
of the atom, which are the smallest objects in nature, can be
broken up into even tinier particles called gluons and quarks.
OK. That much is imaginable. Though it begs the question:
are gluons and quarks made up of tinier particles as well,
and those particles, tinier still, tinier and tinier until
we're looking at nothing made of particles made of nothing?
Finding this edge between something and nothing: isn't it
a bit like trying to stay awake and fall asleep at the same time
the way you did as a kid, hoping to discover the exact moment
you fell asleep, to experience it as a moment, and not some
vague, overlapping state in which you are neither awake
nor asleep, but both, and unaware, impossible to remember
afterwards begging a further question: are there really hard lines
between states of consciousness or things in nature?
And if time began a fraction of a fraction of a fraction
of a second after the Big Bang, what existed before that Bang?
Eternity? Or the absence of both eternity and time
so that moment couldn't have been waiting forever to happen.
I know. I know. What does it matter? But there's a tunnel
seventeen miles long, an immense ring of concrete and metal
under the border between Switzerland and France which cost
forty billion dollars to build, so it must matter to someone!
Look: when you shatter a proton by smashing it into another
proton going the opposite direction at the speed of light,
the protons explode into their component partsthat is: quarks
and gluons. This forms a particle "soup" which reestablishes
itself by cohering again into protons. Am I getting this right?
But in that collision, other particles are created and forces unleashed
that haven't existed since time began and that's something,
that's really something, though what it is isn't exactly known.
Take the boson: a particle that gives mass to other particles.
What? Don't all particles have mass to begin with? Isn't that
the definition of a particle, that it has mass and takes up space
and is tangible and real? What's a particle if it doesn't have mass?
A pre-particle? A potential particle? Maybe energy sizzles
in the void, waiting for a boson to float by drawing it
into a mass for the first time, the way passion becomes a mob,
and a mob can tear down barricades and overturn cars.
Passion's just an abstraction, a possibility until
a body comes along to give it arms and legs, to give it muscle.
There's morea mechanism that causes this clustering,
and "a sort of lattice" or field that fills the universe and affects
particles that move through itbut let's not go into that now
because there are other fish to fry, like "dark" matter, antimatter,
and the possibility of hidden dimensions of space and time
which might also be revealed when those two protons collide.
Not to mention stranglets, but now that I've mentioned them
it's safe to say that they are hypothetical objects consisting
of up, down, and strange quarksthree types of quarks that exist
which is strange enough to begin with, if you think about it.
They might be only a few femtometers across (don't ask), but
once they become large enough to be macroscopic
they are called "quark stars" (I'm not making this up) or even
"strange stars." A strangelet is a small fragment of strange matter.
It's much more complicated than this, but this is enough
to keep most of us busy for years trying to comprehend exactly
what's going on, though one thing is becoming perfectly
clear: "physicists around the world now have a much greater
power to smash the components of atoms together to learn
about their structure," according to the latest articles, though
smashing things to create things seems counter-intuitive,
while smashing things to learn things seems as natural as the boy
on a beach, far from here, whohaving dug up
with his shovel a common clamexamines it and turns it
over in his hand, again and again, finds a rock, then two,
and smashes the clam between them to see what's inside.
It's how we question everything. It's who we are. It's what we do.