14 August 2007

Put "penguin" in the paper

I love hearing grand things, deep things, discussed. Unfortunately, I also love to understand what I'm hearing. These two loves are of course in conflict because, quite frankly, I'm not equipped to understand a serious discussion of subatomic particles. I'll start listening, or reading, and then when bafflement overcomes intrigue, walk away or close the book.

This is why I was delighted to learn about penguin diagrams. It reconciles my two loves. Physicists use penguin diagrams to help keep track of "deWitt indices." Never mind what that means. When I read the story about a certain barroom bet, I had the feeling both that I understood what I was reading and that it was important and deep. Almost as if I were one of the folks who know what a deWitt index might be.

Here's the story according to John Ellis, a Cambridge-educated Brit who led a particle theory group at CERN for six years.

Mary K. [Gaillard], Dimitri [Nanopoulos], and I first got interested in what are now called penguin diagrams while we were studying CP violation in the Standard Model in 1976… The penguin name came in 1977, as follows.

In the spring of 1977, Mike Chanowitz, Mary K. and I wrote a paper on GUTs [Grand Unified Theories] predicting the b quark mass before it was found. When it was found a few weeks later, Mary K., Dimitri, Serge Rudaz and I immediately started working on its phenomenology.

That summer, there was a student at CERN, Melissa Franklin, who is now an experimentalist at Harvard. One evening, she, I, and Serge went to a pub, and she and I started a game of darts. We made a bet that if I lost I had to put the word penguin into my next paper. She actually left the darts game before the end, and was replaced by Serge, who beat me. Nevertheless, I felt obligated to carry out the conditions of the bet.

For some time, it was not clear to me how to get the word into this b quark paper that we were writing at the time…. Later…I had a sudden flash that the famous diagrams look like penguins. So we put the name into our paper, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

ACtually, you have a squint a lot to agree that the diagrams "look like penguins." But he was a man of his word, and the phrase has stuck.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.