Why Quarks Are Unobservable

Philosophia Scientiae 13 (2):167-189 (2009)
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Abstract
This essay deals with the question whether quarks—the basic components of matter and one of the youngest confirmed particles in high energy physics—can be observed directly or indirectly. First, I shall discuss earlier definitions of “observation” in physics suggested by Grover Maxwell, Bas van Fraassen, and Dudely Shapere. Then, I shall compare their results with a new consideration of the idea of “observation” in physics and the distinction between direct and indirect observation.One of the ways that quarks appear in experimental evidence is in jet-events which are special decay patterns in particle detectors. These jet-events are the central case study for this essay since they are the most convincing evidence of quarks so far. My inquiry into the physics behind jet-events and their treatment by physicists leads me to conclude that quarks are neither directly nor indirectly observed. I compare this thesis to other views on the observability of quarks, suggested by Kristin Shrader-Frechette and Michela Massimi. But in short, it seems to me that if the notion “observation” is to have a reasonable relation to an everyday life’s concept of observation, and if it is meant literally instead of metaphorically, then quarks are not observable in any currently-known experimental context.RésuméCet article pose la question de savoir si les quarks — constituants élémentaires de la matière et dernières particules de la physique des hautes énergies à avoir été confirmées — peuvent être observés de manière directe ou indirecte. D’abord, des définitions antérieures de « l’observation » en physique seront examinées — en l’occurrence, celles proposées par Grover Maxwell, Bas van Fraassen et Dudley Shapere. Puis, leurs résultats seront comparés à une définition du concept d’observation et à une différenciation entre l’observation directe et indirecte.Une possibilité de mettre en évidence les quarks de manière expérimentale est le phénomène des jet-events, qui représentent un type spécifique de désagrégation dans les détecteurs de particules. Ces jet-events contribuent à l’étude de cas ici centrale, puisqu’ils sont la preuve la plus convaincante à ce jour des quarks. L’examen de jet-events et leurs évaluations par des physiciens mènent à la conclusion que les quarks ne peuvent être observés, ni directement ni indirectement. Cette thèse sera comparée aux points de vue de Kristin Shrader-Frechette et Michela Massimi sur l’observabilité des quarks. On en tire la conclusion que les quarks ne sont pas observables, si l’on entend employer le terme « observation » dans un sens non métaphorique et en conservant une relation avec ses usages dans la vie quotidienne
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DOI 10.4000/philosophiascientiae.303
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