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  1. Science & Tech
30 July 2015updated 02 Sep 2021 4:58pm

The usefulness of a pentaquark

Quarks are a puzzle: they carry, variously, a third or two-thirds of the electrical charge of the electron.

By Michael Brooks

You probably aren’t that excited about the pentaquark. That’s OK. For most people, excitement isn’t an appropriate response to the discovery of a new arrangement in some of matter’s most basic constituents.

Quarks are what you find when you look inside the protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom. Their existence was first suggested in 1964. Within a decade, we started to spot them in the collision debris of particle accelerators. There are three quarks in a proton and three in a neutron. The theoretical description allows them to exist in groups of four, which we have seen, and five, which we hadn’t until researchers at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider announced the pentaquark’s discovery this month.

It is an important sighting because it will allow us to probe further the structure of matter. At the moment, we don’t know an awful lot about what goes on inside an atomic nucleus. Quarks are a puzzle: they carry, variously, a third or two-thirds of the electrical charge of the electron, for instance. We consider the electron to be a fundamental particle; how do other particles have a smaller charge? Where does that come from?

We don’t know. And no one yet knows whether the pentaquark will help us answer these questions, or be useful in some other way. Although it is tempting to suggest that the discovery could lead to new technologies, it is far too soon to make any such claim.

That said, we didn’t know about the structure of the atom in much detail until relatively recently. Now, we can manipulate it to produce lasers, electronics and a range of other tools that are indispensable to modern living. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that increasing our understanding of the nucleus could produce a similarly awe-inspiring range of technologies that those living in the 22nd century will take for granted. The best we can do is learn the lessons of history and spend a little money on expanding our intellectual horizons.

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This is why the cries of “What is it good for?” from the likes of Simon Jenkins are so silly. Writing in the Guardian, Jenkins suggested that the pentaquark discovery was just another result of supplying too much funding for physics. He would prefer to fund research into understanding the criminal mind, say, to help reduce the burden on Britain’s prisons.

It’s like berating Pythagoras for spending too much time on geometry, or taking Benjamin Franklin to task for researching atmospheric electricity when American politics needed his attention. While Michael Faraday was doing blue-skies research into electricity, the British empire was still grinding slaves into the ground. He was an upright man. Should he not have diverted funds towards their emancipation?

The reality is that we human beings carry out a multiplicity of tasks. Division of labour is one of the innovations that have made our species so effective. Some research criminology; some practise medicine. Some carry out research into particle physics; others are paid to write poorly argued columns that give the impression of intellectual bravery. What is the point of the pentaquark? There might not be one. Its discovery is just one of the many outcomes of abstruse, difficult, no-benefit-in-sight, shamelessly intellectual science. These programmes often lead only to the pages of academic journals but some change everything for everyone. And that makes all of them worthwhile.

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