Truly Learning Vocabulary Lists

OR... Particle Physics for Word Buffs

Learning Vocabulary Lists
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Do you know what you're made of? If the physicists are right, you and I are nothing more than a pair of swirling particle clouds! Not very romantic is it? But there's an upside...

A terrific list of words!

What I'm going to try to do is weave all these magical words into the punchiest essay I can, so you can boost your vocabulary (and your general knowledge!) without getting bored to death in the process.

At least, that's my hope ;-)

But first, a word of warning for Scrabble players...

Convention for Scrabblers

Scrabble players love new words, but they are petrified of accidentally learning a word that isn't allowed in Scrabble. To calm you down, I've used the following notation to indicate whether or not each word is officially valid...

NEUTRINO — Allowed in Scrabble everywhere
SPARTICLE — Allowed in World Scrabble only (i.e. SOWPODS/CSW)
ANTIHELIUM* — Not Allowed in Scrabble anywhere

See? I really do care about my Scrabble friends! Of course, if you're just hungry for vocabulary, and could care less about Scrabble, just focus on the upper-case words in the article and ignore the fact that some are unbolded and/or followed by an asterisk.

Phew! Let's get on with it...

The Standard Model

According to physicists the world is made of particles. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it isn't. It's not simple at all. You see, there isn't just one type of particle. Or even two or three, for that matter. There are hundreds of the darn things!

NOTE — The word 'particle' in this little story deserves some elaboration. You see, these particles aren't like small ball-bearings, or bits of dust that we can easily picture. Although they show up in experiments as little dots, they can cancel and reinforce each other like waves.

In fact, the label WAVICLE was once coined to convey their bizarre dual behavior. Fortunately, this ugly (if rather Scrabbly) Frankenstein construction didn't take off, and nowadays you're more likely to hear them called QUANTA (or QUANTUM in the singular).

Remarkably, this buzzing microcosm of random activity has been organized into a coherent schema called, somewhat unimaginatively, the Standard Model. In fact, you can pretty much think of this article as the vocabulary of that model.

At the heart of the Standard Model is the idea of elementary particles; the very basic building blocks of the building blocks of the building blocks of... well... pretty much everything really.

So here's a table that nicely organizes all the elementary particles of the Standard Model. Don't expect it to mean anything just yet, but I'll be referring back to it from time to time...

There are basically two types of particle in the universe. The first class consists of particles that make up the matter all around us (the chairs and tables of the world). These are called FERMIONS, being named after a pioneer of particle physics by the name of Enrico Fermi.

The second class consists of particles that cause interaction between matter particles (think of them as the 'springs' that bind things together or push them apart). These particles are called BOSONS, being named after another important early physicist by the name of Satyendra Nath Bose.

In short, fermions are matter particles and bosons are interaction particles. Now let's drill down on each of these categories...


Particles can push and pull on each other in several ways corresponding to four fundamental forces: the gravitational force, the strong force, the weak force, and the electromagnetic force.

The Standard Model can't handle gravity yet; it's way too tricky. But the others can be understood very well by thinking of the forces as being mediated by particles, called bosons.


  • GLUONS carry the strong force and are usually denoted by a lowercase g. I don't have much to say about gluons yet, but I just wanted this paragraph to be the same length as the next two. There. That should do it.
  • PHOTONS carry the electromagnetic force and are usually denoted by the greek letter γ (gamma). Photons are better known for their role as the 'light particles' that enable us to see stuff.
  • GAUGE BOSONS carry the weak force. There are two types of gauge bosons denoted by the symbols W and Z. Most physicists just refer to these particles as W- and Z-Bosons, however the name WEAKON (being suggestive of the weak force) was once proposed.

    It didn't take hold among physicists, but the lexicographers seem to have taken notice ;-)

NOTE — You may be wondering how forces can be 'carried' by particles. The immediate analogy of a ball being thrown back and forth between two people, thereby pushing them apart, soon breaks down when you try to explain attraction. I'm afraid there is no analogy, as quanta don't behave like ordinary particles. It is quite helpful to think of them as 'probability waves'. It is even more helpful not to think about them at all.

So there are the names of the particles that carry the forces that push and pull matter particles around. Now let's get on to the matter itself. The stuff you, me, and your ugly aunty are all made of...


Fermions are the matter particles, remember? But isn't matter made of atoms? Yes, it sure is. But atoms aren't the basic building blocks. To get to those, we have to dig deeper.

But first, we should probably have a quick recap on atoms, just to make sure we're on the same page. So here's a picture that probably brings back painful memories of your childhood science class...

As you can see, the atom consists of a hard core called the NUCLEUS around which a bunch of tiny particles called ELECTRONS orbit. The nucleus is composed of two types of particles called PROTONS and NEUTRONS, which are collectively known as NUCLEONS.

And what keeps this whole assembly together? Bosons! In particular, gluons and photons generate all the little attractive and repulsive forces that keep every little min-solar-system doing its thing. But we've already talked about bosons. Let's get back to fermions...

Fermions are grouped into two categories, according to how they do or don't interact with each other: QUARKS and LEPTONS.


The quarks interact via the strong force, which is another way of saying that they get pushed and pulled around by gluons (they were the carriers of the strong force, remember?).

Unlike electrons, which are all the same as each other, there are six different types of quark.

Quarks come in pairs in a natural, but difficult to explain, way that I won't go into here. This pairing is reflected in the naming convention used for these quarks: up, down, charm, strange, top, bottom. As you can see in the pink table just above, the first letter of these labels is usually used as a shorthand symbol (u, d, etc.).

And before you ask... No, there is no good reason for the choice of names, so it's not even worth getting into it!

Thanks to the powerful force carried by gluons, quarks tend to bind together to form extremely robust little chunks of matter, like the protons and neutrons that form an atomic nucleus.

A proton, for example, is made up of two up quarks and one down quark...

NOTE — Just for the picky among us... Strictly speaking, when we say that a particle is made up of this-or-that many quarks, it isn't quite true. There are actually a whole bunch of other quarks inside too, but they kind of cancel each other out. The leftover quarks (sometimes called VALENCE quarks, in analogy with chemistry) are what we are really counting.

A neutron, on the other hand, is made up of two down quarks and one up quark. Note that even though a neutron and a proton are both made of three quarks, they are very different creatures (only the proton has an electric charge, for example). That's because they contain different numbers of up and down quarks. And that's why I bothered earlier to explain the different types of quarks.

You see? Everything I say is important, so listen up ;-)

Protons and neutrons aren't the only things you can build out of quarks. In general, when a bunch of quarks is 'glued' together, the resulting particle is called a HADRON.

Just to quench our thirst for Scrabble words, physicists distinguish two types of hadron, according to the number of quarks they contain. A BARYON is any hadron made up of three quarks, while a MESON is any hadron made up of two quarks. But I've got a hunch you'd prefer a picture...

So both neutrons and protons are examples of baryons.

NOTE — In fact, they are by far the most common hadrons in the universe. The reason for this is that almost all hadrons (whether baryons or mesons) decay very shortly after they form. For reasons that are way too technical for us humble word buffs, atomic protons and neutrons contain a highly stable configuration of quarks, allowing them to live for a very long time without decaying.

Mesons are much harder to come by (and even harder to describe!), but examples include the PION and the KAON. I'm afraid I don't really have much interesting to tell you about these guys, because they decay so quickly they just don't have time to do anything interesting.


Unlike the quarks, leptons don't respond to the strong force, and they don't tend to stick together to form little solid lumps. The most common example of a lepton is the ELECTRON (the tiny little dots forming a cloud around the nuclei of atoms).

But there are other leptons besides electrons. In particular, there are MUONS and TAUONS (often called tau particles) which are just like electrons except they are much, much heavier. Electrons, muons and tauons are usually represented by the symbols e, μ (mu), and τ (tau), respectively.

Associated with each of these three leptons there is also a tiny, eensy-weensy little lepton called a NEUTRINO. These things, which turn up during a process called beta decay, are so darn small and insensitive to the forces of nature that it took years for physicists to track any down.

A neutrino is usually denoted by the greek letter ν (nu), with a subscript to indicate which of the three bigger leptons it's associated with (i.e. νe, νμ, or ντ).


For each elementary particle, it turns out there exists another particle that is almost identical, except that it has the opposite charge. The second particle is called the ANTIPARTICLE of the first.

As you can guess, this leads to a whole bag of cool ANTI- extensions, including: ANTIELECTRON, ANTIQUARK, and ANTINEUTRINO. These antiparticles are usually symbolized by putting an overbar over the symbol for the original particle. For example, since u represents an up quark, the symbol ū would represent the anti up quark.

NOTE — Here's a quick warning to Scrabble players. Although all antiparticles are legitimate in the world of physics, things are a bit less predictable in the world of Scrabble. Hence, in the notation I introduced at the start, we have: ANTIQUARK, ANTIBARYON, and ANTITAUON*.

So stick the prefix on with care!

For compound particles (i.e. those made up of more than one elementary particle), if you replace each constituent elementary particle with its corresponding antiparticle, you get an anti-compound-particle. If, for example, you replace each quark inside a NUCLEON (that's a proton or neutron, remember?) with its antiquark, you end up with an ANTINUCLEON (i.e. an ANTIPROTON or ANTINEUTRON).

But you can go further. Let's take an atom and replace each of its nucleons with antinucleons, and then replace its electrons with ANTIELECTRONS (usually called POSITRONS in the phys-biz). You now have an ANTIATOM!

Hands up if you thought this term was coined by a bunch of rebellious scientists ;-)

NOTE — Speaking of ANTIATOMS, you can get more specific and talk about ANTIHYDROGEN, which physicists managed to create artificially in the mid 1990s. They have also created ANTIHELIUM* atoms many times over, but they seem to have forgotten to notify the Scrabble dictionary committees!

And the fun doesn't stop there...

You can now take a chunk of fully fledged matter and replace each of its constituent atoms with its antiatom, and guess what you've created? ANTIMATTER.

NOTE — Contrary to popular belief, antimatter does not defy gravity as some sci-fi flicks would have you think — it's just matter with the positive and negative charges swapped around throughout.

One fun thing it does though, is that if it comes into contact with ordinary matter, the two annihilate each other in an explosion of photons. And that means you can't store this stuff in jars and sell it in supermarkets.

Well, I think that's about all you need to know to hold your own in a dinner table conversation about the particles in the so-called Standard Model. Next, I'll throw in some less essential exotic species of particles, including some particles that aren't really particles at all!

More Exotic Particles

Hypothetical Particles

A hypothetical particle is one that has been conjectured by physicists because it seems to be consistent with the known laws, but which is yet to be seen. Not all physicists believe these particles exist (indeed some are considered by many to be severe flights of fancy).

But they all have cool names, and they're all allowed in Scrabble, so I'd like to talk about them.

Earlier, I explained how all particles can be classified as either fermions or bosons. This dichotomy is based on quite a technical argument that has been questioned from time to time.

One compelling analysis suggests that in a two-dimensional system, the traditional dichotomy would break down, making room for a whole spectrum of possibilities in between bosons and fermions.

Naturally, ANYthing between a bosON and a fermiON, should be called an ANYON.

Sounding much more like a term from neuroanatomy than particle physics, an axion is a hypothetical particle that was invented to resolve a perplexing issue called The Strong CP Problem.

This problem had to do with the differences between the theories of the strong and weak forces with respect to a type of symmetry called CP.

It doesn't really matter though. The main point is that there's nothing else you can make with these letters.

A glueball is what you would get if you could stick a bunch of gluons together. And you have to admit, even though it sounds more like a team sport than a particle, it's a pretty darn sensible name.

Theoretically, gluons should be able to stick together like this, but, like most things in particle physics, it's a lot easier said than done. In the meantime, feel free to play it.

The greatest problem in modern physics is that general relativity (the theory of space and time) and quantum theory (the theory of matter and interactions) refuse to talk to each other.

A very popular assumption among physicists is that gravity will turn out to be a quantum field (just like the other forces) and the (alleged) particle that mediates the corresponding force is called the graviton. We've yet to detect one, but lots of people are trying.

A model was proposed in the 1970s in which the (now assumed to be) elementary quarks and leptons were actually composite particles. The hypothetical constituent particles were called preons. Although physicists rarely say never, the idea has been largely discredited.

I wonder what the preons were made of? ;-)

A very popular, although speculative, theory in particle physics is called SUPERSYMMETRY (often called Susy by physicists; it's a kind of secret handshake). It's way too difficult to even summarize here, but the upshot of it would be that all known particles would have new (as yet undetected) partners.

These hypothetical super-symmetric partners are indicated by plonking an S at the front of each name. Collectively they are known as sparticles.

The SQUARK has already made its way into the Scrabble dictionary, but I'm afraid the dictionary makers will require more evidence before gems like SLEPTON* and SFERMION* get the green light ;-)

The equations of special relativity allow all sorts of generalizations. One of them is to let the mass of a particle (normally an ordinary real number) have a value called a complex number.

If a particle had a complex mass, it would be able to travel backwards in time without violating relativity. Such a particle is called a tachyon. Few physicists take them seriously, but they're fun to think about nonetheless.


Quasiparticles aren't real particles. They're not even hypothetical particles trying to be real (if you.. um.. get my drift). But they have pretty cool names, so I thought I'd throw a few of them in anyway.

Basically, a QUASIPARTICLE is a phenomenon that behaves so much like a particle, that physicists find it convenient to think of it that way.

In quantum theory, for example, a particle is often conceived as a 'mode of vibration' of a thing called a quantum field. It doesn't matter too much what that means here, except to say that there are other types of oscillations in nature that give rise to the 'illusion' of a particle, where there is none in reality.

For example: vibrations in elastic media are often called PHONONS, oscillation states of a hot ionized gas are called PLASMONS, and excitations of some weird stuff called 'condensed matter' are called EXCITONS.

There are plenty of other examples, but I've got a feeling you've had about enough for now ;-)

Learning This Vocabulary List

It's one thing to passively read new words, but as I've emphasized many times, to actually improve your vocabulary you need to do something much more active with them.

And as the Memory Guy constantly reminds us, you can squeeze phenomenal amounts of information into your head with the careful use of pictures, stories, and so on.

Now it's one thing to say all this stuff, but quite another to actually do it. So below I've put together a few things I use to implement the memory and vocabulary tips you'll find throughout Word Buff.

Use Pictures & Tables

You've already seen the following table earlier in this article. It's a really neat way to capture most of the Standard Model in a tiny graphical space.

As you look at this table again, imagine that you are explaining each of its compartments to somebody else. Try to remember what you read earlier about each block, and when you can't, scroll back up and do a quick recap...

Where helpful, try memorizing the other pictures I've placed on this page too (e.g. the proton made up of three quarks, and the hadrons divided into baryons and mesons).

Make up a Story or Song

If you're really clever (and have a bit of time on your hands!), it's always fun and effective to turn a new vocabulary list into a story or song.

But just this once, I'll save you the trouble...

Make sure you listen carefully to the words in that song, and play it a few times over. It's impressive how much vocabulary you can squeeze into such a small set of lyrics don't you think?

Use Vocabulary Lists & Flashcards

Pictures, stories and songs are fun, of course, but if you're going to have a serious go at learning new vocabulary words, you really need to organize them into theme-based lists and use some kind of flashcard system to test yourself on them.

To do this, I always enter a new bunch of related words into a software program, which not only lets you easily store lists and test yourself with flashcards, but can even track your progress.

But if you don't have vocabulary building software, feel free to use a stack of dusty old library cards if you like! They still work just fine ;-)

Anyway, here's what the list looks like in my favorite vocabulary program. Note how I often add pictures and notes to help me remember words...

Find out more about this cool fellow...

And here's the list in old-style (feel free to print it out if you like)...

Every particle has an antiparticle in which each of its constituent elementary particles is replaced with one having the opposite charge, but identical in every other way. This gives rise to a whole bunch of anti-things, like antiquarks, antielectron, antiatoms, and antimatter.

Antielectrons are usually called positrons.

A hadron made of three quarks. The most stable, and hence common, baryons are protons and neutrons.

A particle that mediates the interactions between matter particles (fermions). Bosons are often described as 'force carriers'.

A negatively charged elementary particle that orbits the nucleus of an atom. Electrons are the most well known leptons.

The elementary constituents of matter. Atoms, for example, consist of protons, neutrons, and electrons, which are all fermions.

The boson responsible for mediating the strong nuclear force that binds quarks together to form hadrons.

A compound particle made up exclusively of quarks.

A type of meson.

An elementary particle that does not participate in the strong force. Examples include the electron, the muon, and the tauon.

A hadron made up of two quarks. Examples of mesons include the pion and the kaon.

A lepton that is the next heaviest after the electron.

An extremely difficult-to-detect lepton because it has no charge, a minuscule mass, and only interacts through the so-called weak interaction. Electrons, muons, and tauons, each have a partner neutrino.

A chargeless (i.e. neutral) particle found in the nucleus of most atoms.

The generic name for particles making up a nucleus.

The collection of protons and (usually) neutrons making up the positively charged core of an atom.

The boson that mediates the electromagnetic force. It is usually thought of as a particle of light.

A type of meson, sometimes referred to as a K-meson.

The antiparticle of the electron.

A positively charged particle found in the nucleus of an atom.

An elementary particle that participates in the strong force.

The third heaviest lepton after the electron and the muon. It is usually referred to as a tau particle, but I prefer to call it a tauon so I can play in Scrabble ;-)
NOTE — You might notice that I have not included these more exotic particles (the hypothetical and quasi-particles) in my vocabulary word list above. That's because I try to restrict my vocabulary lists to 'real' vocabulary words (I have other systems for learning crazy Scrabble words).

If it's not in my program's 150,000 vocabulary dictionary, I'm pretty sure I won't come across it in a newspaper!

Actually, just for fun, I checked a major crossword database. Sure enough, all of the standard particles have appeared in major newspaper crossword puzzles (like the New York Times, crossword) except for fermion, and most of the exotic particles haven't. Which makes it a pretty good rule of thumb!

Use Them In Conversations

You know a word has really entered your vocabulary when you start using it in conversations without even thinking about it. Often, though, you have to use new vocabulary words consciously before they take hold.

But how are you going to inject technical words like these into a conversation with a normal person?

Here's an example of a newsworthy topic that is rich in our juicy new vocabulary. This one has made the headlines several times in recent years, and some expect a giant splash to occur in 2012, so I don't think you'll look too geeky bringing it up at the dinner table...

What is the LHC? The LHC is the largest and most powerful particle accelerator in the world. It was built to replace the old, more famous, CERN accelerator which just didn't have enough juice for the modern particle physicists to do their thing. It took a decade to build, with completion finally occurring in 2008.

What does LHC stand for? It stands for Large Hadron Collider. And look at that! Just by telling someone what the acronym stands for, you've already used one of your new words ;-)

What exactly does a particle accelerator do? A particle accelerator enables physicists to take subatomic particles, accelerate them to extremely high speeds, and smash them into each other. The particles they smash together at the LHC are usually protons, although they do occasionally use lead nuclei (if they didn't do this occasionally, it would have been called the Large 'Proton' Collider).

And why would anyone want to do that? Because the debris that comes out of such a collision gives physicists lots of information about the fine structure of the hadrons going into the collision.This in turn helps them test the theories they're working on.

Usually these tests involve sifting through the collision debris in search of new particles. The main aim of the LHC, for example, is to discover a particle called the Higgs Boson, which physicists believe is responsible for endowing other particles with mass.

The Higgs Boson is the last missing piece in the Standard Model we've been talking about, in that all the particles in that model have been confirmed experimentally except for the Higgs. At the LHC they are really closing in on it, though, and many believe that 2012 will be the big year in which the Higgs Boson is finally discovered.

Physicists also hope the LHC will start to provide evidence for a theory called supersymmetry. If supersymmetry is correct, each known fermion will have a new partner boson and vice versa. The hypothesized partners are already being called sparticles.

More Vocabulary Word Lists...

Over the years I've put together quite a few little article/glossaries like this, as I find it an interesting and useful way to learn new words, while increasing my general knowledge at the same time.

Gradually, I hope to transcribe these sketches into fully fledged articles like this one. If/when I complete each one, I'll send it out to Word Buff members via my Word Buff Stuff! newsletter so you don't have to go looking for it.

BTW If you're not a member of Word Buff yet, now's a good time to join. It's completely free, takes just a few seconds, and there's tonnes of freebies waiting for you in the Members Area.

Here's how to join and get your password...

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Your Turn...

Use the comments area below to let me know if you enjoy reading vocabulary word lists like this. If the response is positive, I'll post more of them (I have quite a backlog, although it does take quite a while to format it for my site).

Also, please feel free to pick up on mistakes, add extra insights of your own, or just chit-chat about words 'n stuff ;-)

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