Loving the Standard Model


A visual narration of the story that Chanda Prescod-Weinstein tells about falling in love with the Standard Model of Particle Physics (and somewhat out of it) in her book The Disordered Cosmos

The thumbnail is a diagram of "quantum chromodynamics", that attributes color as analogy for physical properties that are not actually about color. Prescod-Weinstein writes:

I love the idea of QCD, but the language is a hot mess... But what’s important here is that color physics seems intuitive to physicists not because it’s a great analogy for general audiences but because our educations socialize us into the “color + color + color = white” paradigm. It would be great if I never had to read the phrase “colored degrees of freedom” in a new scientific paper again”. 

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Standard Model of Elementary Particles: Fermilab 1987

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein starts The Disordered Cosmos by appealing to the neatly ordered story of the Standard Model of Particle Physics that deepened her attachment to physics. This attraction also produced internal tensions as she learned about the (white, male) history of quantum mechanics:

"I learned that I particularly enjoy a neatly ordered tale of an organized universe that can come off like a delicately constructed sum of its parts.. The way I have inhaled particle physics enmeshes me with this historical trajectory. But I am still also one natural conclusion of a Black child dreaming of quarks—not because quarks could serve state interests, but because quarks nourished the soul. The Standard Model? It is how I fell in love for the first time.”

Spherical Cow

I learned about the "spherical cow" metaphor in theoretical physics in the first chapter of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein's The Disordered Cosmos. "Approximate the cow as a sphere" is a running joke for simplification of highly complex systems into symmetrical ones for easier calculations at the cost of representation. This visual metaphor characterises one aspect of the culture of particle physics today. 

Meeting the Universe Halfway: Barad 2007

Karen Barad's book Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007) prompted Chanda Prescod-Weinstein to question her attachment to the Standard Model and scientific reductionism. Barad's statement -- “particle physics… is the ultimate manifestation of the tendency toward scientific reductionism.” -- leads Chanda to question her history of learning: 

“how I might perceive all of this if I were not a product of an educational system rooted in Euro-American precepts. Would I still be fascinated by the layered hierarchy of particle physics, and all of its attending nomenclature? Or did my education give me the capacity to find particle physics deeply exciting, despite its juxtaposition with the nuclear weapons development that helped turn modern particle physics into a line of work? After all, I’ve known since I was a kid that particle physics was tied to the legacy of nuclear weapons.

Vanilla Sky & Radiohead

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein identifies with Radiohead's song "Everything in its Right Place" as played in the movie Vanilla Sky:

“The song, which Radiohead’s lead singer Thom Yorke has explained is about depression, is an ominous foreshadowing of the dystopian direction that the film goes in. My experience with particle physics has something in common with this juxtaposition. I feel comfortable, extremely comfortable in fact, with how the Standard Model tends to locate particles in their correct mathematical structure, in their right place. But I am also low-key worried, on the regular, that finding comfort in this makes it difficult for me to see the larger physical picture, or perhaps is a refusal to see the larger picture. When I think about this, I too have Radiohead playing in the background. In my heart, I fight with the history of the Standard Model of particle physics and the motivation behind it, but also every time I think I can’t deal with physics or physicists anymore, it is the Standard Model that makes me stop in my tracks and think, “Wow.”


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Created date

April 23, 2024

Cite as

Prerna Srigyan. 23 April 2024, "Loving the Standard Model ", STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 23 April 2024, accessed 23 July 2024. https://stsinfrastructures.org/content/loving-standard-model