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Archive for Sunday, July 24, 2005

The little - make that the tiny - things merit further study

July 24, 2005

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Last week, Oxford University professor Richard Dawkins told an international conference that human beings are having to "come to terms with the increasing queerness of the universe."

The realm of the atom is among the queerest. Here, Newton's laws, which describe the visible world, no longer apply.

Instead, the main constituents of atoms - electrons, protons, neutrons and quarks - follow mind-bending rules known as "quantum mechanics."

Quantum mechanics says, for example, that an electron exists simultaneously in many positions in space - yet upon observation by a human resolves to just one.

Dawkins suggested that children be given computer games to help them get comfortable with rules like these.

Kansas University physics professor Alice Bean would second the motion.

"If you look at quarks, they have the same kinds of properties as Pokemon characters," Bean says.

She and a team of KU designers, educators and writers have just received $200,000 in National Science Foundation funds to introduce school children to quarks.

The funding will help the team build a Web site and create animations and other educational materials about quarks. It also will support a touring educational program.

A full-length animated video about quarks is Bean's dream. But it would cost more than $300,000, so the Web site will only feature a short animated clip, starring quarks.

Bean hopes that her team's efforts will get the attention necessary to raise production funds for an animated television series about the atomic realm.

The nucleus of the atom is made of protons and neutrons, Bean says, and these, in turn, are made of two kinds of quarks, called "up" and "down."

How small are quarks? Well, if you could enlarge an atom until it stretched all the way from Kansas City to Chicago, a quark would still be no wider than a pea.

In a three-minute animation already created by KU design professors and their students, two up quarks, Harold and Ushi, are driving around with a down quark, Danny. Their SUV is a proton.

KU English department lecturer David Ohle wrote the script of the adventure that follows when they encounter an antiproton SUV driven by two anti-up quarks and one anti-down quark.

The encounter leads to annihilation - but only temporarily. Such collisions happen all the time inside proton colliders, where physicists like Bean study the resulting creation of new quarks.

If you're wondering why we should spend money getting kids excited about things so small and strange, consider the example of Michael Faraday.

Faraday learned how to channel electrical current in the early 19th century. He didn't give a hoot about the usefulness of that discovery, but other people did. And that changed the world.

We need children who are fired up about understanding the "queer" mechanics of the universe because, in the end, we simply don't know where basic knowledge will lead.

Roger Martin is publications and features editor for the KU Center for Research. His commentaries on research can be found at www.ur.ku.edu. Martin's e-mail address is rmartin@ku.edu.

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