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Feature - The Particle-Zoo Keeper

Feature - An interview with the “Particle-Zoo Keeper”

Julie Peasley presents her particle zoo during a visit to the CERN library. She has created a plush toy version of the decay of a top quark for Fermilab. One of the artist’s plush toy can reverse inside-out with a zipper, and open up to reveal a big bottom quark with a mini anti-muon and a mini muon-neutrino. Image courtesy CERN

There are many different ways to depict the workings of the Standard Model — typically involving things such as blackboard drawings or 3D computer animations. However, a Los Angeles artist has come up with a new,  unorthodox approach, using hand-sewn, fuzzy, plush toys, which she collectively describes as her “particle zoo.” A behind-the-scenes look into her work seemed  appropriate for the holiday season.

Physicists consider that they have “seen” a particle when their detectors send an electronic signal and a spot appears on their computer screen. American artist Julie Peasley has gone much further than that. She has started sewing soft toys so that we can not only see what particles look like, but even play with them.

Peasley, who is based in Los Angeles, has been passionate about physics since she was a teenager. She eventually opted for art studies but she never stopped reading physics books, and her home library full of scientific publications and audio books to accompany the long hours spent sewing toys. “The particle plushies idea came about after attending a physics lecture at UCLA by Lawrence Krauss entitled ‘The Beginning and End of Time’ in July, 2007. A couple of difficult physics books later (including Lisa Randall’s ‘Warped Passages’), I realized that the individual particles seemed to have various ‘personalities’ that could be ‘felted out’ with relative ease,” she wrote on her website.

“I have always been interested in physics and cosmology,” Peasley explained. “Two years ago, I went to a craft fair and I saw that people were making little soft creatures of various things and it just seemed to me that particles I was studying had personality. So, why not turn them into little characters?”

Peasley had little sewing experience to start with, but decided to give it a go and soon was selling her wares on the web. Less than three months later, in May of 2008, she quit her job as a graphic designer and started designing and making the particle zoo full-time. Physics World magazine soon noticed her web site, then other scientific publications and blogs took over and spread the word. “Initially, I did not have the idea that this could be as popular as it is today,” said Peasley. “Now, I think it has reached the point where people who are interested in physics — scientists, teachers — know about it.”

During the week of the LHC start-up in September 2008, Peasley experienced a big spike in her sales, to the point where she had to work more than 12 hours a day to satisfy the requests. “During a slow period, I make about 5– to 10- particle plushies per day but I can make 30- to 40- a day when it gets really busy,” she explained. She has also tried to mass-produce her particles in China, “but I only did it for the electron, because mass-producing the whole zoo would require an investment of a lot of money up front and I don't have enough business yet.”

Physicist Angela Buechler went underground at CERN’s LHCb and used the particles to explain what is happening there, for the Swiss television program Schweizer Fernsehen (SF), which aired on February 26, 2009. The particles show up at 6:25.  Screenshot courtesy SF 

Some particles more popular than others

Peasley’s sales figures imply that the public seems to appreciate the theoretical, undiscovered particles more than the others. Despite the big publicity that antimatter received following the release of the Hollywood blockbuster Angels & Demons, “antimatter doesn't sell particularly well. The Higgs is the real top-seller. In second place is dark matter.”

Her favorites are the proton and the photon whereas, she said, nobody seems to like the tau.

Like any scientist, Peasley is exploring new territories. Her current project is the “quantum duck,” due out soon. “The quantum duck is my secret project,” revealed Peasley. “It is going to be like those Russian dolls — you keep opening the doll and you have the duck, the molecule and it’s going down to quarks and keeps going further and further down.”

(Why a duck? “I think at the time, when the idea came to me, my calendar had some ducks on it.”)

Nothing is out of reach for her zoo; particles can decay and reveal new objects created in the interaction. “I did the decaying top quark for Fermilab. It is a plushie that reverses inside out with a zipper to reveal a big bottom quark,and has a mini anti-muon and a mini muon–neutrino inside. I would like to do the neutron decay in the same way.”

When particles have exhausted their inspiring power, Julie will turn her attention from the study of the smallest objects to the largest: cosmology.

“In the future, I am going to do more objects from space, such as black holes and pulsars,” she confirmed.

Antonella Del Rosso, CERN. (First published in the CERN Bulletin, issue 24-25/2009.)

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