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Quarks Don't Have Time to Celebrate the New Year

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Quarks Don't Have Time to Celebrate the New Year

Quarks Don't Have Time to Celebrate the New Year

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Well, another year past, another year begun. We celebrate, but we mostly take it for granted. Our science correspondent Robert Krulwich wanted to really cheer on the New Year, wanted to be proud that once again, the Earth had orbited the sun, the magnificent 365-day, 149 million miles swing around our star. It's a real accomplishment.

But Robert just couldn't get excited. He found himself thinking about it from the point of view of a quark, a subatomic particle. It ruined his holiday.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So happy New Year. We have done it again. We've made one full orbit around the sun, so that's winter to spring, to summer to fall and now it's winter again. Time measures cycles. And a year is a cycle that most of us can feel. Even a second has a human sense about it, says MIT physicist Robert Jaffe. It's roughly the beat of a human heart.

Professor ROBERT JAFFE (MIT): It's pretty close, right? If you're in good shape, I think 60 beats a minute is not bad.

KRULWICH: But when you get way down to fractions of seconds, that's when time begins to make less and less sense. And scientists keep coming up with shorter slices. We have gone from milliseconds - a thousandth of a second - to microseconds - a millionth of the second - to nanoseconds - a billion of a second - to picoseconds - a millionth of a millionth of a second - to atoseconds - abillionth, of a billionth of a second - to zeptoseconds - a trillionth of a billionth of a second - to yaktoseconds - a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. I have no idea what you do in a yaktosecond.

Professor JAFFE: Actually, I'm not sure I know either.

KRULWICH: But that's because we are humans and we have a human sense of time. Now, supposed just for the fun of it, you got suddenly much smaller. You were, say, a quark, the tiniest form of matter, which is smaller than an atom, smaller even than a proton or neutron. Quarks, says Professor Jaffe, are the building blocks of everything.

Professor JAFFE: Except for a little smudge of electrons, all of us are made of quarks.

KRULWICH: Now, you're speaking, of course, as a quark scholar, so there's this, if you had a cape, it would read quark on the back.

Professor JAFFE: Quark enthusiast.

KRULWICH: Yeah, Okay. Just so you're properly in front of the man who loves quarks. But when I asked him, what can a bunch of quarks do in a trillionth of a second? He said well, basically, what they do is they orbit each other.

Professor JAFFE: So there's always zipping around one another in these well defined orbits.

KRULWICH: And in that trillionth of a second, which for us is no time at all, these quarks will make, and I kid you not, 10 billion orbits.

Professor JAFFE: So they have a quite an active life during that time.

KRULWICH: I'll say. Ten billion orbits in a trillionth of a second. Now, just to compare, and meaning no disrespect to our own planet, that is twice as many orbits as our planet Earth has ever made since our planet began.

Professor JAFFE: That's right.

KRULWICH: And if you look at just 2006, the year just past, when we made one orbit around the sun in that year, how many orbits, how many new years, did the quarks have?

Professor JAFFE: About 10 to the 29th. Lots of New Years celebrations for the quarks.

KRULWICH: On the other hand though, we have to go all the way around the sun. And the quarks, you know, they don't go around anything.

Only when you measure on our scale. If you abandon this anthroprocentric stance and stop thinking of everything in terms of human scales -

KRUWILCH: Oh, excuse me. Okay.

If you're a quark, you go to more New Year's parties than any human being could even ever begin to imagine, because quarks are frankly the orbits champions. Not that Professor Jaffe has ever been to a quark New Year's Eve party.

Professor JAFFE: Well, I don't know, the parties I go to are entirely made of people, made of quarks, so - although we don't usually talk about that very much.

KRULWICH: Yeah. It's best to avoid mentioning quarks on New Year. It's just too humiliating.

Robert Krulwich, NPR News, New York.

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