Brian Trumbore closed a recent Week in Review with a farewell
to Arnold Palmer in the Masters and a statement that he would
never forget walking 18 holes with Arnie. Many decades ago, I
was in the gallery at a "Tournament of Champions" in Las
Vegas. It was my first golf tournament and I followed a young
Arnie, who was paired with Cary Middlecoff. At one point,
Arnie''s drive landed behind a tree directly in line with the green.
He would obviously have to lay up. Not Arnie. He walked up
and remarked to us, "That''s not so bad, is it?" Of course, he
curved that ball around the tree onto the green and I became a
member of Arnie''s Army right there.
In contrast, could anything be stranger than the world''s top
golfers'' performances once Tiger took the lead in the Masters?
Especially shocking was Vijay, still in contention, dumping two
balls in the water and carding a 9 on the 15th hole. I know just
how Vijay must have felt. A couple days ago, I was on my way
to breaking 100 for the first time in three years, arriving at the
17th hole needing only two sixes to accomplish this impressive
feat. I got my 6 on the 18th but preceded this by skulling three
balls into the pond and 3-putting for a 13 on the 17th!
Since we also discussed strange things in last week''s column,
how could I resist those strange objects that have been in the
news recently? I mean those two stars that go by the monikers of
3C58 and RXJ1856. (Can you tell me why my spellchecker has
just flagged RXJ1856 but let 3C58 go unchallenged?) You''ve
never heard of these two stars? I hadn''t either but now it seems
that they may be true "strange" stars. What''s with all this
"strange" stuff? Let''s dig into it a bit deeper.
Regular readers might guess that, when digging into something
deeper, I often start with hydrogen, the simplest element. An
atom of ordinary hydrogen is essentially a negatively charged
electron whizzing around a positively charged proton. Suppose
we take this hydrogen atom and squeeze it so hard that we force
the electron to fuse into the proton. We now have a neutron,
which has no charge since the negative and positive charges
cancel each other.
But we discussed in an earlier column that a neutron is actually
made up of particles known as quarks. Physicists are sort of
quirky about quarks and arbitrarily call the various kinds of
quarks by such names as "up" and "down". A neutron is two
down quarks and one up quark. (In case you wonder how the
quarks got there when we merged the proton and electron, a
proton is also made up of quarks.)
But now let''s squeeze our neutron really hard. If we squeeze
hard enough, maybe we can break up the neutron into its pieces,
the quarks. We might also have to heat the neutron to pretty high
temperatures to pry the quarks apart. They really like to stick
together. If we do manage to break up the neutron, we would
find that some of the quarks have changed into what physicists
call "strange" quarks. I agree, any quark is strange by normal
standards but let''s humor those physicists.
Let''s now go back to stars and a brief refresher course about what
happens to them when they start to burn out. As our sun starts to
''burn" less and less hydrogen there will be a point at which the
force of gravity takes over. Eventually, the sun will shrink and
end up as a "white dwarf", about the size of Earth. Much bigger
stars than our sun end up as black holes.
Then there are the stars that are bigger than our sun but too small
to become black holes. These end up as neutron stars. The
gravity is powerful enough to squeeze the protons and electrons
together to form neutrons. These neutron stars are typically
around 12 to 20 miles in diameter. Pretty small potatoes as stars
go but the amount of mass is fantastic. Imagine the mass of our
sun being squashed down into a ball less than the length of a
Marathon run in diameter.
You may have already deduced what comes next. Suppose that
the star is more massive than the star that ends up as a neutron
star but too small to become a black hole. What happens to it?
With more gravity, could it squeeze the neutrons so much that
they break up into quarks? Bingo! That''s what''s so exciting
about our friends 3C58 and RXJ1856.
To me, 3C58 is interesting because its history goes back to
August of 1181, 821 years ago, when observers in China and
Japan saw a supernova explosion that gave birth to 3C58. X-ray
measurements from the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory
have been used to calculate the temperature of 3C58 and it''s
twice as low as would be expected if it were a neutron star
cooling down for over 8 centuries. The star is also 16 times
lower in luminosity than expected for a neutron star. The
proposed explanation is that 3C58 is a true "strange" star
containing strange and other quarks. David Helfand of Columbia
University and the Chandra team did this work.
Jeremy Drake and his colleagues at the Harvard-Smithsonian
Center for Astrophysics looked at the light and X-rays coming
from RXJ1856. From these data, they calculated the size as
being only about half the size of a neutron star. If their size
estimate is correct, RXJ cannot be a neutron star. Again, the
explanation proposed is that RXJ is a strange star made up of
As with any new finding, there are some disclaimers and
skeptics. It''s possible that the stars could be neutron stars and the
data may have been misinterpreted due to a lack of thorough
understanding of neutron star behavior. However, if the strange
quark star proposal holds up, these stars present an opportunity to
study a form of matter that doesn''t exist here on Earth. Billions
of dollars have been and are being spent on costly atom smashers
trying to approach the generation of matter composed of free
quarks. If these stars and others are indeed composed of free
quarks, the physicists should have a great time measuring the
properties of this superdense matter.
Meanwhile, I shall continue to try to understand another difficult
fundamental problem. What is the unseen physical force that
causes a golf ball to be attracted so strongly to bodies of water?
In truth, there are probably more individuals interested in the
solution to this problem than in free quarks and strange stars.
Addendum: I went on the World Golf Hall of Fame Web site to
check the spelling of Middlecoff''s name and found that he was
no slouch either. He won two U.S. Opens and a Masters, but was
also known for his "glacial" pace on the course due to his
"fastidious" setup routine. In fact, he might have won the 1957
Open but for his slowness. In that Open he closed with two 68s
to tie Dick Mayer, forcing a playoff. Mayer showed up for the
playoff with a camping stool to use while Middlecoff prepared to
hit the ball. Speculation is that the ploy shook up Middlecoff so
much that he shot a 79 and lost to Mayer by 7 strokes!
Allen F. Bortrum