A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 3, Chapter 11 : A New Age Dawns (Muster Mark's Quarks) | Summary



Following a discussion of the atom, Bryson focuses on even smaller particles. In 1911 British scientist C.T.R. Wilson was the first scientist able to prove subatomic particles existed with the invention of the particle detector. In the 1960s Caltech physicist Murray Gell-Mann theorized protons, neutrons, and other small atomic particles were made up of even smaller subatomic particles called quarks. The research that would follow required large sums of money, in the millions and billions of dollars, in order to construct particle accelerators and other machines able to detect such small particles.

The standard model describes subatomic particles. Quarks are held together by particles called gluons. Quarks and gluons together make up protons and neutrons in the nucleus of the atom. Leptons make up electrons and neutrinos, which are similar to electrons but do not have an electrical charge.

A large amount of effort has been spent on determining a way to draw together subatomic and atomic quantum laws with large gravitational laws. But so far, says Bryson, "all we have is a kind of elegant messiness." One attempt to draw everything together is string theory, which states that particles are actually strings. Another, spawned by string theory, is M, or membrane, theory. Despite the various theories that have arisen, Bryson quotes Karl Popper, a German scientist active in the late 19th century: "There may not be an ultimate theory for physics—that rather, every explanation may require a further explanation." Along with the problems associated with physical laws, science is still unsure of the age of the universe, distances associated with stars and galaxies, or even what the universe is made of.


A large portion of this chapter is spent discussing the equipment-heavy, hugely expensive endeavors to find and understand subatomic particles. Yet, at the same time, while science is expanding the understanding of the universe, firm understanding is still many decades and centuries in the future. This suggests two facts. First, humans are fascinated with the unknown. Second, governments and organizations spend millions or billions of dollars on projects to discover new aspects of the universe only to find more questions that need answers. Discoveries within subatomic physics are not necessarily more important than other fields of science, yet a massive amount of money is poured into these projects. In other words, a large part of science funding is based purely on the ability of a specific project to capture the imagination of the funders, both private and public. In the words of Bryson: "We live in a universe whose age we can't quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances ... we don't altogether know, filled with matter we can't identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don't truly understand." Despite the massive amounts of money dedicated to uncovering the mysteries of the universe, science must deal with exponentially more questions and few answers.

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