18 April 2014

“Q” is for Quarks – and a clever conversation about coincidences at Clarke Quay

So, we are up to the letter “Q” in this now accursed daily alphabet A to Z writing challenge thing that I recklessly signed up for.

It is a tough gig.

In the game of scrabble the “Q” tile is worth ten points. Along with the letter “Z” it is the highest scoring letter in the game. Scrabble strategists will endeavour to use the tile on a triple letter square or on a triple word square. If one happens to have the “Z” as well, the word “quiz” is a beauty.

A good score is guaranteed.

When considering what I would write today with the “Q” theme in mind – I recalled a clever conversation I had about Quarks and coincidences with a genius that I met by chance at Clarke Quay.

Double “Q’s”.

A Quark is not a noise made by a duck with a quacking impediment.

Quarks are elementary particles that are one of the fundamental constituents of Matter. They combine with other particles to make up things called hadrons - some of which are protons and neutrons. This is Physics stuff. It is genius type of mathematical and science material that is way beyond my level of understanding.

I am a simpleton in such matters but I am nevertheless fascinated by it.

Clarke Quay is a popular tourist place in Singapore with lots of bars and restaurants and nightclubs. I don’t go there very often.

I am not a tourist.

I got on the Quark train of coincidences just before Christmas last year after receiving an email from my good mate Alex. He is a scientist and he lives now in Sydney in Australia. Alex is an old friend and an ex work colleague of mine. He is of Bulgarian extraction - but he has spent most of his life in Australia.

I don't think that Alex’ family arrived in Australia as a refugee nor did they arrive in the country on an overcrowded and leaky and dangerous boat. I don't think that Alex and his family were intercepted by the Australian Navy and sent to an offshore Immigration processing centre in a country like Nauru - nor were they were kept as a prisoners by Australian Immigration Authorities in atrocious conditions for years and years.

However I will have to check with him on that.

Two genius-type Physicists named Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig founded the Quark. Zweig was Russian born but he grew up in America and Gell-Mann was born and bred in the USA. I have used the term 'founded' because neither of the genius Physicists discovered or made the Quark - they simply posed theories about its existence. This was back in the early 1960's - which was around the time of my birth. Zweig and Gell-Mann did not work together in their field and it was somewhat of a coincidence that they were looking for the same thing.

The day I received the email from my friend Alex was a day of coincidences for me - as I am soon – or eventually - about to reveal.

It was Gell-Mann who named the Quark. He came across the word in the writings of the great Irish novelist James Joyce. The word was used in Joyce's book 'Finnegans Wake' - which he wrote in 1939. He wrote:

"Three Quarks for Muster Mark".

‘Finnegans Wake’ is a dream-like rambling of mad, brilliant and at times quite inexplicable prose. It is a very different piece of work from his much more famous book "Ulysses".

I have read both books and they are excellent.

I very much like that Gell-Mann chose to call the Quark the Quark. Many scientists and physicians who have discovered big things named them after themselves. It is my opinion that this is a little vain. The Quark could easily have been called the "Gell-Mann" - which I think has far less resonance.

But what do I know?

Gell-Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Science in 1969 but it was not for his discovery or naming of the Quark. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on something that is known as the "Eightfold Way" - which from my very un-genius like understanding has something to do with the manner in which other genius scientists are able to classify sub-atomic things. As I have already stated - such matters are way beyond my comprehension. I often repeat myself.

I often repeat myself.

The email that I received from my friend Alex was about Quarks and Black Holes and he sent it to me because he knows that I am interested in such things. The email from Alex was a piece of synchronicity and coincidence that life quite often serves up - for on the day that I received the email from Alex I was out with friends at Clarke Quay - and I bumped into a guy named Gabriel. Gabriel is a Swiss Particle Physicist genius who studies Black Holes and something called ‘Dark Matter’.

I first met Gabriel at Clarke Quay as well. It was a couple of months before I received the Quark email from Alex. We were both out on social outings that just happened to be at the same bar.

I am referring to Gabriel and myself. Not Alex.

I thought Gabriel was mad at first because he seemed very strange. After speaking to him for a while though I realized that he is just brilliant. He is a genius. He is a mathematician as well as a Particle Physicist and is on some sort of university and government thing here in Singapore. Once we got talking I quickly established that he is a very smart and interesting person.

He is uber interesting in fact.

Gabriel is very shy and it took a while for him to engage with me - however I persisted. I generally do.

Well sometimes I do.

When we started talking about his job he opened right up. I asked Gabriel lots of questions and he gave me lots of answers. Such was my interest that I wrote some of what he told me down. I scrawled notes on both sides of a serviette. The serviette got damp from beer and wine and melting ice that was splashed on the table so the ink blurred a bit. Gabriel and I were both drinking iced water so we were sober and the alcohol spillage was not ours - but loud and rowdy drunks surrounded us.

We didn't mind.

The word serviette is French. It's English translation means 'napkin' or 'towel'.  Interestingly the word 'napkin' also has French origins - although to me it sounds a bit Scottish. It is a derivation of the French word "naperon' which is some form of apron thing. The French are obviously big on the use of such items and serviettes are very useful. They keep crumbs off us and can also be used to write notes on.

Don't get them wet though if you write on them as the ink runs and blurs and it is then difficult to read.

I suspect that Gabriel has Asperger Syndrome. Many very smart people do - well some at least. The syndrome is actually a type of autism that was unremarkably named by an Austrian pediatrician called Hans Asperger. Hans suffered from a vanity complex and he named the syndrome in 1944. This was at the tail end of the Second World War. I have not established if Asperger had any Nazi connections or whether he was involved in any of the horrific experiments conducted by Josef Mengele - the infamous and absolutely evil Doctor of Auschwitz.

I could find no literature to support this.

The Second World War was often referred to as 'the war to end all wars'.  More than sixty million people were killed in the conflict and it did not end all wars either.

Far from it.

War rages still across the planet.

It is an abomination.

Modern day medical and psychological practitioners argue that persons with Asperger do not 'suffer' from the condition. Some have difficulties coping with social interactions but they are also often blessed with incredible cognitive abilities. I found Gabriel to be a little socially awkward but he is most definitely brilliant. He is remarkable in fact and he is working in a fascinating field.

I wander and digress.

I often do.

When I asked Gabriel what exactly it is that a Particle Physicist does he told me that there are a number of different fields of endeavour. He told me that his main area of interest and expertise is in the study of Dark Matter. Gabriel informed me that he spends much of his time in the Swiss city of Cern where he works with more than 7,000 other scientists on the Large Hadron Collider.

He refers to this as an acronym - it is the LHC.

Gabriel informed me that the LHC is the largest machine ever built by man. I told him that I already knew this because I have read about it before. The LHC is an enormous twenty-seven kilometer tunnel of super conducting magnets and it is constructed more than one hundred meters underground. Gabriel told me that if you didn't know that it was there you wouldn't notice it. Apparently cows graze in fields directly above it.  

These are Swiss cows with bells around their necks.

I have seen and heard these cows before. They clang and toll when they walk.

Gabriel told me that the LHC machine cost more than $9 billion to construct. When I asked him if that was in US dollars he confirmed that it was. He told me that the machine was turned on in September 2008 and it took more than eight years to build. I am not sure what the value of the US dollar was back then but it is atrocious now.

America has a grossly dysfunctional economy with a very weak currency at the moment. They have no one to blame but themselves for this – they caused the Global Financial crisis. The GFC.

Gabriel informed me that the LHC was turned on in September 2008. He told me this several times so I have also repeated it. Perhaps I am also Asperger’s?

I think not – I am perhaps worried though that madness is engulfing me. I regularly go off in deranged tangents in my writing and I occasionally think and write in foreign tongues.

C’est la vie.

Gabriel told me that ten days after the LHC was turned on it blew up. He told me that a minor fault in an electrical circuit triggered a huge discharge of liquid helium that destroyed a large part of the machinery. Gabriel told me that he was there when it happened and it occurred on his birthday.

He told me that the party that was planned for him was ruined.

The machine was repaired at a cost of more than another one billion dollars and Gabriel informed me that it has been running beautifully ever since. The machine smashes particles called protons into each other at near speeds of light and then genius scientists like Gabriel analyze the results.

I asked Gabriel to try and dumb down his explanations of the LHC machine and his work for me. I informed him that I am not very bright. He told me that he would try and I think that he did try - however a lot of what he said still went over my head.

Gabriel informed me that many people think that the world and the universe is made up of Particles and Matter but it actually is not. He told me that everything is made up of Fields and they hold everything together. The LHC is actually a study of Fields and Waves and Particles are just a part of this. Gabriel told me about Protons and Neutrons and Electrons and he explained Quarks and Quantum Mechanics. He endeavored to explain what Chaos Theory was all about but I found it incredibly difficult to follow his train of thought and explanations - even though I was riveted.

I made a lot of notes on the paper serviette.

I told Gabriel that I had heard that the illusive Higgs boson particle had recently been discovered and identified at the LHC and he confirmed that it had. He got a little excited when he told me this and he became a bit animated. Gabriel told me that this happened in July last year and another boson had also since been discovered. When I asked what exactly a boson was he told me that it was a sub-atomic particle that didn't spin like other particles did. When I enquired whether the Higgs boson particle was in fact the "God Particle" he scoffed. He told me that there was no place for religion in science but he was confident that further experiments and investigations of these discoveries might make for an understanding how everything and everyone came to be - and what holds it all together.

Gabriel informed me that the LHC is now closed for further upgrades to increase its already massive energy inputs. He said that it will not open again for another couple of years and Gabriel hopes to then continue his studies on Dark Matter.

Dark Matter is mysterious energy that absorbs all light and is something that is impossible to see or feel. It is nothingness that has a powerful force but has the ability to consume everything.

Black holes are made of Dark Matter.

Gabriel told me quite a lot about his Dark Matter studies and he talked about space-time continuums and things like time travel and anti-matter and parallel universes. I listened intently and with great interest but I had run out of space on my serviette to take any more adequate notes.

I had run out of continuum as well.

I asked Gabriel whether Dark Matter really did matter and he looked quite puzzled so my poor attempt at humor was wasted. The Swiss are not known for their wit and neither are Asperger people, so I told him to carry on.

At another point in our conversation I asked Gabriel whether the LHC was being used to conduct any type of weapons development and he told me that he didn't think that it was. He told me without asking that I shouldn't fear extremist Muslims using the LHC to make any super weapons. I told him that I would be more worried about the Americans using it this way. I told Gabriel that the Americans have a long history of war mongering and developing and deploying weapons of mass destruction and he nodded his head in agreement.

Then I went home with my damp serviette crammed with my blurred scrawl of amazing facts and data stuffed in my pocket.

I was very tired and my head was spinning with interesting and new information.

So – back to my initial explanation of Quarks and coincidences and conversations. As I have already mentioned – way back in one of my opening paragraphs – on the day I received the email from my friend Alex I was out again with some friends at Clarke Quay and I once again bumped into Gabriel. I had not seen him since we first met.

We were in a different bar than the first time. I separated myself from the friends who I was out with and I went to say hello. He seemed as pleased to see me as I was to see him. We shook hands and swapped formalities. Whilst we were sipping on our iced waters I mentioned the Quark email I had received from my friend Alex. 

We started to talk about interesting science things involving the Quark.

Our conversation was briefly interrupted by a drunken intrusion from a whining and miserable Scot I know whose name is Ernie. He staggered up to the table we were seated at whilst he was on his way to the bar, and he addressed me in some barely comprehensible Scottish English.

I begrudgingly introduced Ernie to Gabriel and I explained to the Swiss Particle Physicist genius that the drunken Scot was a gay ex-colleague of mine. Ernie responded with the somewhat slurred comment:

"Ahm noot fookin gay."

"Of course you are Ernie." I replied.

"He is.” I told the bemused looking Swiss Particle Physicist genius. 

I endeavoured to reassure Ernie that there was nothing wrong with being gay and that it was not illegal to be so in Singapore. This is not a falsehood. Being gay is not illegal on the Island however performing homosexual acts are.

This is as true as it is bizarre. 

The sexual preferences of everyone and anyone on the planet are none of anyone else's business and they do not in any way define who they are. I have many gay male and female friends who live all around the world and most of them are in long-standing and very loving and committed relationships. There is much public debate and argument going on at present in my home country on whether gay couples should or should not be allowed to become legally married.

Of course they should be allowed.

Love is love and harmonic relationships should not be defined by gender or sexual preferences.

Wake up you bigoted fucker politicians.

I only mentioned to Gabriel that the Scottish drunkard was gay because I know that Ernie is homophobic and making such a comment would cause him go away. My cunning ploy worked and Ernie staggered and reeled off to the bar leaving Gabriel and I in peace.

I have no idea or indeed any interest in whether Ernie is gay or not. A derogatory reference to gay people is interestingly “Queer” – another “Q’” word.

Ernie’s homophobia and Scottish accent simply annoy me.

I asked Gabriel whether he thought that the recent email from my friend Alex about Quarks and bumping into him again on the same day was some sort of synchronicity. I queried him on the potential relationship of Quarks to such things as Space Time continuum and Black Holes. The Swiss Particle Physicist genius paused in some deliberate contemplation at this and then replied that he didn't know - but he thought that they could be.

He told me that anything is possible.

I agreed with the statement that everything is possible.

I told the Swiss Particle Physicist genius that there were further coincidences of sorts between bumping into him out-of-the-blue and receiving the Quark email from my friend Alex on the same day. These coincidences were that Alex was also a genius-type scientist and he and his family spent a couple of years living near Switzerland - just over the border in France - and that Alex brother lives in Geneva where he works for the World Wildlife Foundation.

The term 'out-of-the-blue' means unexpectedly - or an event that occurs without any warning. It is an idiom. The earliest citation of the term was from a book titled 'The French Revolution, 1837' - written by the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle - who scribed:

"Arrestment, sudden really as a bolt out of the Blue, has hit strange victims". 

The fact that Carlyle was a Scottish writer and also seeing the drunken gay Scottish Ernie was another out-of-the-blue and coincidental and synchronistic moment. As with the Alex email and Gabriel encounter it may also be Dark Matter and Black Hole and Space Time continuum related.

Or it may not.

Alex and his family moved for a couple of years to a tiny and gorgeous little French village near the medieval town of Annecy. I cannot recall the name of the village but I do know that it was only a little over an hour's drive from Geneva.

I know this because I made the drive to visit Alex there from Geneva.

Alex and his wife Catherine and their three adorable children took a sabbatical just to immerse themselves in French village culture. The children went to the local village school - where only French was spoken - and they are all now fluent in the language. Their mother Catherine was already fluent but Alex tells me that he is barely competent in the language. As well as being a highly social genius scientist, Alex is a most humble individual - so I suspect that he may also actually be fluent in French.

The word ‘fluent’ means ‘to flow’ and the French word for it is ‘courant’.

I thought I would just throw that one in there.

There is no Quark coincidence involved.

Or is there?

The house in which Alex and his family lived in the little French village that I-can’t-remember-the-name-of was ancient and gorgeous and it was set in the midst of an astonishingly beautiful forest. A little bubbling brook ran behind the rear of the property and I sat in their garden overlooking it for many hours when I visited. I sat on the grass terrace listening to the bubbling of the brook and I chatted away to Alex and Catherine and their three children.

I am very fond of all of Alex and Catherine's children but my favorite is their middle child Molly. She is incredibly intelligent and funny and she has a natural gift for languages and she is bubbly and effervescent and she is full of life. Molly has the capacity to be a brilliant Particle Physicist like Gabriel - or indeed an equally brilliant scientist like her father when she grows into adulthood.

Her capacity is boundless and infinite.

Gabriel and I chatted away for an hour or so about a lot of science stuff but we also talked about life in general. We discussed literature and we talked about Climate Change and weather and wars. We also talked about Quarks - and it was from Gabriel that I learned about the Physicists Gell-Mann and Zweig and how the Quark was named.

It was a very pleasant encounter. 

Our conversation and encounter ended because I was tired and I needed to go home. I haven’t seen Gabriel since.

I haven’t really thought about him or Quarks either until I had to write this “Q” piece.

I have his card somewhere and I must look him up.

I will suggest we get together and have another clever conversation about Quarks at Clarke Quay.


  1. I enjoyed your post, Peter! My favorite line (it made me smile) is, "I had run out of continuum as well." My other favorite is "There is no Quark coincidence involved." I don't know why, but it just struck me as funny. You've inspired me to come up with something interesting for my post about Q!

  2. I never thought about a quark before, but this post will help me think more about it.

  3. Quite an interesting read it is...about quarks and many other things :)

  4. Every time I go to Clark Quay now, I shall think of this post :)

    Damyanti, Co-host A to Z Challenge April 2014, My Latest post

    Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  5. I am impressed with how much you wrote! I've barely had time for a 300-500 word post every day. This challenge is definitely just that, a challenge.

    One line that made me giggle is this: "A Quark is not a noise made by a duck with a quacking impediment."

    I like the way you write! Definitely made me think more about Quarks than I ever have before.

    Stopping by from http://jaimieramsey.com.