Quark, Strangennes and Charm
On Tuesday I got a message on my answering machine. I've had the machine three years and two months and I hadn't had a single message in all that time - apart from the ones I left myself, obviously - It's nice to come home and see the little light flash even if you do know that the message will just be an exact repeat of what you just said in the phone box two minutes ago. It only costs 10p to leave myself a message after all and 10p once or twice a week is worth it I think for the buzz you get of having a message to play back.
The message I got on Tuesday was for a guy named Chris. The woman giving the message was explaining the directions to a party on Friday night. I don't know this person called Chris (I don't know anyone called Chris, actually I really don't know anyone in real life but I do see lots of people on the television). The woman must have got the wrong number but the she sounded friendly and I didn't want to let her down so I decided to go to the party anyway.
I remember once turning up to a party I overheard someone talking about on a bus. For some reason, when I got there, they wouldn't let me in. His excuse was that he didn't know who I was. I told him my name and asked if I could go in now. He said no. After about ten minutes of arguing he called the police so I ran away. I've had enough hassle from the police to last a lifetime. They turned up at my house the next day. The man at the party must have told them my name. Nowadays if I ever meet anyone I always use a false name - it's safer that way.
I went to the address on the answering machine message at eleven-thirty. After that last party I decided I'd be best entering via the bathroom window. As I received the message on Tuesday I had plenty of time to study the structure of the house and work out the best way in. The bathroom was on the first floor so I had to use my climbing equipment.
The climb up wasn't too difficult. There were a few drain pipes to help me and the bathroom window was quite loose as I anticipated, in fact I didn't need the hammer and chisel after all. When I got in I saw a man being sick into the toilet. I thought I should wait outside until he finished so he wouldn't see me (I guessed that it wasn't the type of party where people expect to see men climbing in through bathroom windows) but he seemed busy enough with what he was doing. I walked past him holding my nose and went into the main hallway.
I made my way downstairs to the kitchen. There was a big table in the middle of it and there was lots of booze on top of it. By the look of the overflowing bin in the corner there was a lot more booze on the table a few hours earlier. There were about twenty or twenty-five middle aged people filling the room and they were all talking loudly. I decided to listen in to what they were saying to get an idea of the mood before I tried talking to someone. I stood by a few of them trying to be inconspicuous and listen to their conversations.
From what I heard they seemed to be talking about science but I didn't understand most of it. I started getting bored so I decided to try talking to someone. I looked around and selected the youngest person I could find. I don't like old people. I think human decay is contagious. I think if I can avoid them completely I might live forever. I walked over and stood in front of her. I couldn't think of anything to say so I just waited for her to say something first. She took a sip of her drink and looked around. She didn't seem to want to look at me so I kept waiting. She tapped someone on the shoulder and started talking to him. I cleared my throat and she ignored me. So I coughed and she still ignored me. So I said "EXCUSE ME!" and then she turned round.
"Er, Hi" she said. "Didn't see you there". A likely story I thought. "I haven't seen you around. Are you a new Post-Grad?"
"Yes. Yes I am" I said "I am a new post-grad. That is what I am. A new post-grad. Yes."
"You sound a bit nervous" she said finishing her drink. "I must say I'm not surprised. I was absolutely horrified when I found out what goes on at these Quantum Physics Research parties but I suppose it's kind of funny when you think about it."
This seemed like an appropriate place to agree with her. "Er, Yeah. Right".
"I've been to a few of these parties but I still haven't had any of my work from them published but I think that's because I don't drink enough when I'm here. Speaking of alcohol can I get you anything?"
"Yes uh, you can get me a uh a drink yes."
"Any drink in particular?" I do hate it when people ask me questions. It's an invasion of privacy I think.
"I'll have that one there" I pointed "beside the blue can, the purple one".
"The special brew?".
"Yes, the special brew". I consider it a skill that I have that if I'm not sure what I'm talking about I can get people to suggest something and all I have to do is agree with it. It makes me seem really clever. It's what I did just there when the woman offered me the special brew. You didn't even notice, did you?
She handed me the can and I took a gulp. It was revolting. I made a mental note never to get drinks in purple cans.
"That's really nice" I said.
"So" she said "Have you come up with any 'scientific advances' yet? Sorry, I didn't catch your name."
I know there's a really witty reply to 'I didn't catch your name' but I couldn't remember it at the time. Shame, it was really very funny. I opened my mouth to tell her my name and then remembered that it was best to use a false name.
"Steven McCormick" I said confidently. Shit, that is my real name. She told me her name and I instantly forgot it.
"Anyway Steven, have you come up with any 'advances in scientific knowledge' yet?". She said this as if it was something funny like a joke or something but I didn't understand.
"I don't understand" I said.
"Oh no!" she laughed "Don't tell me they haven't told you about these parties. Oh dear oh dear!"
She put her drink down and cleared her throat as if she was about to talk seriously.
"Basically, right, what happened was, back in the 1930s the physicists..." I think she said 'physicists', she was quite drunk and having difficulty with big words. "The physicists..." That was even worse. "The boffins discovered, isolated and taken the inside leg measurement of what were called the fundamental particles: proton, electron and neutron. Then they said to the governments 'Hey you! Give us some more money and we'll tell you what these particles are made of' and the governments said 'like alright, here you go' and the physi... people looked and looked and found nothing. And the money was running out and no-one would give them more unless they had found something and they looked really hard and they concluded that there was quite definitely nothing inside any of the fundamental particles. They are now getting really pissed off because when the money runs out they'd all be out of a job and they only had enough money left for a couple of months. So they decided to blow the last of the money on a great big party and just tell everyone else that they spent it on research or something. So imagine a party full of very drunk and very depressed scientists. And out of the blue one of them - legend says it was Schrödinger - says 'Why don't we just make up new particles?'. Obviously no-one takes him seriously and some Japanese guy called Yukawa says 'Don't be such a boson'. He meant to call him something else but his grasp of English wasn't fantastic and he was very drunk so it came out 'boson' so that's what they decided to call these new made up particles. So they got their money and they all kept their jobs and they kept having big parties where they recorded themselves speaking jibberish and they came up with silly names like muons, leptons and things like that. I think they've got carried away now because in the 60s and 70s they started experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs and came up with the quarks which are just rediculous. Were actually working on what's inside quarks at the moment.
"Anyway, now money spent on physics is split into three roughly equal portions: one third on salaries, one third on alcohol and the rest on making new equipment that looks really impressive to show people when they ask where all their money has gone. You know CERN? Great big underground circular tunnel full of what we call accelerators, spans two countries its so big? Well it doesn't actually do anything. It just looks dead good.
"All the rubbish we come up with at these parties is passed on to the theoretical physicists - they're just scientists who can't handle their drink - and they spend all their time trying to come up with what sounds like a good explanation of the stuff we come up with."
"And the brilliant thing is that no-one can argue with us because no-one really understands this sort of thing anyway. Everyone just keeps quiet to avoid looking stupid."
She looked at me. I think she expected me to say something. I wasn't really listening to what she was saying. I got bored somewhere in the middle.
"You got Trivial Pursuit at this party?" I asked.
"You know, Trivial Pursuit. That board game where you answer questions and try to fill your round thing with wedges (personally I prefer to call them cheeses)."
Suddenly someone grabbed me by the shoulders.
"This man's a genius!" he shouted with his beery breath. "So quarks are made up from six different coloured wedges, no actually cheeses is a good name, and the particular combination of cheeses determines the nature of the quark."
Someone else joined in. "Yeah, and you can have the same coloured cheeses in two quarks but they could be different because they are from different editions of the game. A Genus edition quark is different from a Baby Boomers quark."
Suddenly everyone was shouting. "Quarks with all six cheese slots full could experience a force holding them into the centre of the atom."
For some reason everybody at the party decided they wanted to talk to me but I didn't understand much of what they said. I never did get that game of Trivial Pursuit but somebody said he'd make sure I got a Ph.D. within the next month or two and apparently I'm hot favourite for next year's Nobel Prize which I was told means I get to fly in a aeroplane.
Stuart Leitch, June 1998