Astroengine exclusive interview with Particle Zoo founder, Julie Peasley
The hunt for the Higgs particle may have come to grinding halt until 2009, but that doesn’t mean you can’t discover the elusive particle for yourself. In fact, it’s not just the Higgs boson that awaits discovery in the zoo of Standard Model particles. And what a zoo it is! We have protons, neutrons, the quarks that make up said hadrons; plus all the force carriers, neutrinos, photons, electrons and anti-particles. There is a delicious and varied array of subatomic particles out there, but they are too small for us to see. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what these quanta actually look like?
It seems that Particle Zookeeper Julie Peasley has an intimate connection with the tiny “beings” that make up all known matter in the Universe. She has single-handedly set up her own business putting faces to the complex particles, giving us a unique view into the quantum world we would otherwise forget in the soup of theoretical physics equations. The Particle Zoo is a Los Angeles company, where Julie brings particles to life in her “sweatshop of one,” sewing beautifully-made plushie toys of all the Standard Model particles so we can collect them all…
The timing couldn’t have been better. I was still chuckling after writing an Astroengine article about the People for the Ethical Treatment of Hadrons (PETH), where a group of “activists” were protesting at CERN ahead of the September 10th “switch-on” of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), near Geneva, Switzerland. Although obviously a stunt, it was fun nonetheless. PETH wanted more awareness for the humane treatment of hadrons being accelerated and annihilated in the huge particle collider. After all, these innocent particles would be killed by their billions, who’s to say they don’t feel any pain? It’s not quite a philosophical question, but it did get me thinking a little more about subatomic particles; not about their wave equations, more about what a physical particle might actually look like.
I didn’t have to wonder for much longer. The Particle Zoo website has a fine display of every particle from quark to boson, from photon to proton, complete with little faces and personalities, lovingly stitched into materials matching their individual characteristics. Apparently, the Higgs boson is a bit of a snob, “he’s the one everyone wants to meet, but for now he’s playing hard to get,” and the theoretical graviton “has big legs for jumping branes.” The best has got to be the W boson, the carrier of the weak force, which is double sided (positive side and negative side), with a name tag distinguishing whether it is + or -. Genius!
I felt compelled to contact Particle Zoo to find out how the company’s founder (and Particle Zookeeper), Julie Peasley, was inspired to come up with such a great idea to give faceless quanta a face and personality. “At the time, I was reading Warped Passages and realized that the particles seemed to have distinct personalities,” she said in response. Julie had attended a physics lecture at UCLA where the inspiration struck. She was at a Dr. Lawrence Krauss lecture on the The Beginning and End of Time and found it so compelling that she read Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages (plus other physics textbooks). She realized that the subatomic particles discussed could have different “personalities” that could be embodied through her talents as an artist and her lifelong interest in cosmology, the quantum world and theoretical physics.
In her sweatshop of one Julie spends her days stitching her next particle to be sent into the big wide world. “I had a collection of the Giant Microbes toys and thought if people enjoyed those, maybe they would enjoy taking it a step further (well, to be honest, many orders of magnitude further),” she said, after all, the Particle Zoo would be an entirely different world to microbiology. “I honestly had no idea if anyone would be interested but I’m happy to say I’ve gotten over and beyond the positive response I could have imagined.”
Although Julie didn’t study physics at university (she holds a Fine Arts degree from the University of Colorado), she started out with a huge interest in the science. As an 18 year old freshman, preparing to enter college and declare her major, she was thinking about doing physics. However, on moving into dorms, her artistic side demanded her attention. “I made friends with some punky musicians who were in the art department and I thought it would be more fun to be an art major! Regrets? Maybe… a little…” Regardless, without her artistic background, these little particles may never have gained a personality.
“I love the idea of hadron’s rights, that is hilarious. Actually, I’m quite jealous of the little hadrons who get to collide at the LHC. They get to go 99.999999% the speed of light. How cool is that?” – Particle Zookeeper Julie Peasley. In response to the article “Do Hadrons Feel Pain?“
On browsing through Julie’s collection, I can’t help but be impressed. All her creations have been made to a very high standard, but the best thing is that she has paid special attention to the fundamental quantities of each quark, lepton, boson and nucleon. If the particle is heavy, it will be filled with something weighty, like gravel (check out the vital statistics for the Higgs boson for example); if it is massless, it is filled with light weight poly fill (such as the photon).
There are also some nice subtleties in their design – the strange quark has three eyes, the neutrinos look like little ninjas, the neutron has a “neutral” expression on its face – you can spend ages trying to choose which one you prefer. For me, it has to be the theoretical dark matter particle, “difficult to see because he’s so dark” (resembling a black pillow looking very chuffed with himself). Although the Higgs particle looks great too (already I’m thinking he’s a smug attention-seeker!).
“The particles seem to be catching on more and more. I had a “special” on Higgs bosons all day on September 10 to celebrate the startup. I sold a record amount of particles in a short time. So I am now only $999,999,689 away from buying my own LHC.” – Particle Zookeeper Julie Peasley.
Although the zoo is a lot of fun, there is a huge educational element to be exploited too. “Yes, many teachers, professors and science educators have ordered the particles for use in the classroom,” she said. “A few schools have elected to display the Whole Set in their physics departments.” This is already an astounding achievement for Julie, her creative talents and knowledge of physics will make the complex physics of quantum mechanics accessible to a younger audience. “If the particle toys can generate an interest in physics and the subatomic world, I’m grateful. At the very least now all my friends and family know what a boson is,” she added.
So what’s next for Particle Zoo? It seems the Particle Zookeeper will have a busy schedule for the foreseeable future. “When I get caught up on orders, I am going to offer a slightly larger proton that unzips to reveal a pouch with two mini up quarks, a mini down quark and a mini gluon,” Julie said. “The supersymmetric partners will be much, much heavier and thus larger but I haven’t worked out the details.” There is also talk about a secretive “quantum duck” on the horizon, plus a possible collection for chemists.
I for one will be keeping a close eye on the Particle Zoo, seeing what innovative plushie will be created next. To collect your own particles, get over to the Particle Zoo and start browsing.
A big thank you goes to Julie Peasley for taking the time to answer my questions!