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Quark Matter at RHIC: It’s in the Cards

Students and RHIC physicist develop quark-gluon plasma card game

Tamás Csörgő, Csaba Török and Judit Csörgő

RHIC/PHENIX collaborator Tamás Csörgő, Csaba Török and Judit Csörgő with their card game at the exhibition in the "Palace of Wonders" after the ceremony of the 19th Hungarian National Contest for Junior Innovators and Scientist (Budapest, Hungary, June 10, 2010).

Happy New Year! Like the sprays of confetti and streamers exploding in Times Square at midnight on December 31, millions of subatomic particles will soon be streaming from heavy ion collisions at RHIC, Brookhaven Lab’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.

Linking subatomic particles with New Year’s Eve celebrations may not be so strange: Two years ago, a group of Hungarian secondary school students rang in the New Year while playing with particles, literally. The group, which included Judit Csörgő, daughter of RHIC/PHENIX collaborator Tamás Csörgő, and her friend Csaba Török, were at a New Year’s celebration, playing with the first edition of a set of cards invented by Csaba as an entertaining way to learn about subatomic particles and their interactions. The game, more formally developed and tested by the students with mentoring help from Tamás, won an honorable mention in a 2010 Hungarian competition for junior innovators. It is now available for purchase as an e-book, with cards included, on Lulu, in both Hungarian and English.

Quark Matter card game

Quark Matter game cards

“The card game provides a great opportunity for all people — not just physicists — to get acquainted with some of the elementary particles and concepts of the Standard Model,” said Csaba. His invention was inspired by lectures about heavy ion and particle physics in the Science Club at his school, the Berze Secondary School, in Gyöngyös, Hungary, where Tamás was a frequent presenter and founding member of the club.

The deck consists of cards that represent particles and anti-particles from neutrinos, to electrons, positrons, muons, and quarks, which can be used for four different games.

Co-inventor Judit tested the games and ranked them according to their difficulty level. “I have played a lot with students of primary and secondary school, and I found that they really enjoy the games,” she said.

“My favorite,” said Tamás, “is Quark Matter,” the game most closely related to RHIC physics. In it, the cards are mixed face up on a table, packed closely together to represent matter at the instant of a collision at RHIC — a quark-gluon plasma. The object for each of the players is to quickly extract particles as they would emerge from a RHIC collision: non-interacting neutrinos and antineutrinos first, followed by electron/positron and muon/anti-muon pairs, and then finally the quarks and anti-quarks as they hadronize, or freeze out, to form mesons (made of a quark and an anti-quark) , baryons (three quarks) and anti-baryons (three anti-quarks), all the while maintaining a neutral color charge (by joining red, green, and blue quarks, for instance, or red/anti-red pairs).

quarks and gluons

Quark-gluon plasma

As players race one another to extract the correct particles, the “system” expands — as particle cards are pushed apart — just as it does in a real RHIC collision. Players score points for each correct particle pick.

“At the beginner level, students are usually quicker and more successful players, than physicists are,” Csaba added.

The game is instantly addictive. Brookhaven physicist Jeff Mitchell, who brought it back from Hungary to share with other BNLers, has played with his six-year old daughter.

“This would be perfect for middle school students,” said Bernadette Uzzi of Brookhaven’s Office of Educational Programs, who will try it out on her next classroom visit, January 11.

More sophisticated players can name the particles formed by the various combinations of quarks. And additional games teach and reinforce deeper concepts, such as the weak decays of hadrons and several laws of conservation.

middle school students

Brookhaven's Educational Programs staff introduced the card game to students at Rocky Point Middle School.

“As part of the requirements for the young innovators competition, we tested the game in several age groups and among people with quite different professions — from kindergarten kids to truck drivers, architects, farmers, administrators in my research lab KFKI, primary and secondary school teachers, BS, MS, and PhD students, researchers, pensioners, and so on,” said Tamás.

They’ve also presented the game at conferences, including one attended by the former Hungarian minister for education, representatives of the U.S. Embassy in Hungary, and the director of the Hungarian American Fulbright Foundation.

“Our goal is to spread this game to as many people as possible,” said Tamás. He and the young inventors, now university students pursuing degrees in science, have filed an application for a Hungarian patent.

"Our minds were quite inspired, predominantly by the discovery of the perfect fluid of quarks in gold-gold collisions at RHIC. It is fun to have particles in our hands — or, in our pockets,” concluded Tamás. For more information about the particle cards, visit particles card game.

Tags: RHIC

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