Word of the Week (103): GLUEBALL (probability 37351), by David Sutton

We are probably all more or less familiar with the particles that make up the Standard Model in physics, electrons, protons, neutrons, quarks, muons, mesons and so on, even though there are quite a lot of them, and if you can't always get them straight then you are in good company, for even the great physicist Enrico Fermi once remarked that if he could remember the names of all these particles he'd have been a botanist, an attitude that suggests that while he might have been a dab hand at unravelling the mysteries of the universe, he was probably rubbish at Scrabble.

But around the Standard Model we find floating quite a number of other less well-known particles, many with a somewhat hypothetical status, or perhaps what might be called a rather short conceptual half-life. A GLUEBALL, for example, is a hypothetical subatomic particle consisting exclusively of GLUONS bound together, a gluon itself being the name given to a particle thought of as passing between quarks and so signifying the force that holds them together.

Other 'unorthodox' particles include the TACHYON, a hypothetical particle that is SUPERLUMINAL (travels faster than light); this gives the adjective TACHYONIC, as in tachyonic drive, a device beloved of science-fiction writers who would otherwise be forced to delay the action of their narratives by a few hundred thousand years or so while spaceships crawled across the galaxy. The converse of a TACHYON is a TARDYON; this is any particle with a non-zero rest mass, which consequently travels slower than light.

Then there is the AXION, a hypothetical elementary particle which may be a component of cold dark matter; the PREON, which is a hypothetical point-like subcomponent of quarks and gluons; and the GRAVITON, a hypothetical particle associated with the gravitational force, which seems to have a friend called the GRAVITINO.

In addition there are words relating to standard particles viewed or grouped in a particular way. Thus we have WAVICLE, which is a general term applicable to all particles, and indeed even compound particles like atoms and molecules, when one wants to emphasise their wave-particle duality. Then there is ANYON which is a sort of generalisation of fermions and bosons; CLASSON, which seems to be any elementary atomic particle; PARTON, which seems to have been an early incarnation of what are now perceived as quarks and gluons; CHARMONIUM, which is any of various elementary particles consisting of a charm quark and an antiquark; and WEAKON, a subatomic particle associated with the weak force.

In my humble and totally uninformed opinion, the complexity of all this suggests that either physicists are playing games with reality or reality is playing games with physicists. It would be nice to nip forward a few hundred years and see if it has all been sorted out. Now, where's my tachyonic drive...


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