5 Baffling Subatomic Particles

Chameleon Particles
Clayface: actor, shape-shifter and criminal
Clayface: actor, shape-shifter and criminal
Tim Deering/Creative Commons

Even with all the crazy costumes, it's hard to keep track of the super-villain activity in Gotham City -- especially when you have a shape-shifter like Clayface running about. He can take the form of anybody: a bank teller, Bruce Wayne, you name it. He adapts his physical appearance to fit his environment, making him a rather crafty adversary.

Particle physicists have their own Clayface in the form of chameleon particles. So far, we can only speculate on these peculiar bosons that may or may not be powering the expansion of the universe. Scientists first predicted their existence in 2003 as a possible explanation for all that mysterious dark energy that makes up 70 percent of our universe [source: Johnston].Like criminal shape-shifters, the chameleon particles adjust their properties to fit their local environment. For example, if a chameleon particle hangs out here on Earth, where the matter density is high, it would exhibit high mass, too, but its matter interactions would be very weak and short-range.

But that's here on Earth. Out in the void of space, chameleon particles would exhibit low mass and react strongly with matter over great distances. In theory, these speculative particles could be pushing the universe apart in what we call cosmic inflation.

Not surprisingly, chameleon particles would be rather difficult to detect here on Earth. We'd have to go out into deep, empty space to register their presence.

Still, physicists have a number of high-tech detection schemes up their sleeves, and the search continues for the elusive chameleon.

And so the Dark Knight returns once more to his underground Bat Cave and physicists vanish as well, to manage their underground particle colliders.

Author's Note: 5 Baffling Subatomic Particles

As I explained in the Stuff to Blow Your Mind episode "There Once Was a Boson Named Higgs," I tend to think of particle physics as a chocolate-covered urinal cake. That's not a comment on the importance of the field or the awesomeness of the individuals involved, but rather my take on its accessibility as a general audience topic. Bite into the cake just a little bit, and everything is chocolaty and delicious. Bite in just a little too deep, however, and things get less yummy.

So I tried to keep this article as chocolaty as possible by discussing some of the amazing properties of our weirdest subatomic particles -- both real and speculative. It's the glitzy cover art on a much deeper book, because the underlying science here is huge. After all, the field of particle physics aims to unravel the fabric of existence -- to break down matter to its most basic form and expand our understanding of what this universe is all about.

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