A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication
Illustration of four Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots representing the four particles in the Subatomic Smackdown
Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Photon declared champion


After a week of appreciation for each of the four particle contenders, the photon emerged as the winner in the Subatomic Smackdown.

This week, four particles finished what they'd started.

In February, the proton, photon, electron and neutron threw their hats into the ring for the Subatomic Smackdown. This month, they sparred at the open house for the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Florida. (The electron won.) They even held a press conference at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Los Angeles.

 On Monday, the countdown to the final event began. #TeamProton, #TeamPhoton, #TeamElectron and #TeamNeutron each had a day to pump up their particle.

Then today, a poll opened on Twitter to determine the winner. The electron and the photon quickly emerged as the favorites, but midway through the day, the proton came out of nowhere to overtake the electron. (This might have had something to do with the surprise restart of the Large Hadron Collider, which collides protons.) It wasn't enough to put the proton in the lead, though, and the photon powered through to victory.

It was a good, clean fight, and the fans showed us the worth of each of the particle participants.

Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory declared their support for protons, which will help them create the world's most intense beam of neutrinos—particles too aloof to participate in the Smackdown themselves—for the upcoming Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment. Protons also play a starring role at Brookhaven National Accelerator Laboratory, which collides them in the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or RHIC. Clara Nellist explained that scientists use protons in the LHC because they have a magnetic charge, which scientists can use to steer them, and because they’re heavy enough not to lose most of their energy as they loop around the accelerator complex.

Amanda Solliday threw her support behind the photon for its achievements in X-ray science at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. The University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee also cheered on the photon, which it uses to answer fundamental bio-molecular questions in partnership with the BioXFEL Science and Technology Center. David J. Gillcrist pointed out that photons carry the electromagnetic force that allows electrons to interact. Stephanie Keys supported the photon for its achievements at the Canadian Light Source. Alan Fry gave a shout-out to photons for helping scientists study black holes. @SandHillScienceMill mentioned that photons will be essential to the upcoming LUX-ZEPLIN, or LZ, dark matter experiment. And Karl Gumerlock thanked photons for creating frickin’ laser beams.

The Mag Lab championed the electron, which it uses to study everything from qubits to cancer. They pointed out the particle’s role in operating electronics, including the cell phones and computers readers used to vote in the Twitter poll. Kristen Coyne cheered the electron for being the particle behind superconductivity. Brookhaven lent support to #TeamElectron; they accelerate the particles to nearly the speed of light at their National Synchrotron Light Source II to “see” the atomic structures of proteins, battery materials and catalysts in action. Electrons also help them cool the particle beams at RHIC.

William Ratcliff pointed out that neutrons allow scientists to see through steel. Rob Dimeo touted the neutron’s ability to help scientists watch atoms and molecules move in materials and to see magnetism at the nanoscale. Oak Ridge National Laboratory supported the neutron for its role in a variety of areas of research, from studying 3D printing for rocket science; to searching for ways to build better vehicle armor and safer suspension bridges; to working to make better medicines by studying crystals grown in space; to gaining insights into aquatic biochemistry through the study of sturgeon ear bones.

The photon earned the most votes, but in the end, the real winner is science.