How Quarky Can Matter Get?

Chris Ferrie
5 min readJan 19, 2024

Forget cuddly kittens and awkward first dates, let’s talk about the truly weird and wonderful: strange matter. This isn’t your average, run-of-the-mill matter. It’s the stuff that makes neutron stars squirm, bends the rules of physics like a cosmic origami master, and might just be lurking inside your morning toast (probably not, but hey, keep reading!).

Standard Model 101

If you have ever “seen” an atom, it was probably the famous “planetary model” featuring electrons swirling around a dense core of protons and neutrons. According to the so-called Standard Model of Particle Physics, electrons are fundamental — they can’t be split into smaller things. But protons are not. Protons are made of three smaller particles called quarks.

These quirky characters come in six “flavors” with intentionally meaningless names — in order of lightest to heaviest, up, down, strange, charm, bottom, and top. They combine in different ways, like cosmic dance partners, to form the different types of particles we know and love (or, in some cases, tolerate). Fortunately, most combinations of quarks are unstable, meaning they exist only for tiny fractions of a second. They occur naturally, but we can also “create” them by smashing atoms together after accelerating them to nearly the speed of light in country-sized underground experiments called particle colliders. That such partciles don’t last long is a good thing. Physics isn’t like the capitalist vision of modern consumerism where more choice is always better.

Almost all the mass of ordinary matter in the universe is made of protons and neutrons. These are the only stable collections of quarks, and “free” neutrons aren’t even that stable — decaying into a proton after roughly 15 minutes! Protons are made of two up and one down quark, while neutrons are made of two down and one up quark. Pay attention, there’s a test at the end (just kidding — I’m not that cruel).

Getting Strange

Every possible configuration of matter exists in the landscape of energy, a hypothetical mountain range with peaks and valleys. The peaks are unstable, while the valleys are stable. Everything eventually wants to be at the lowest possible point. So, things up in high valleys are stable, but only temporarily so. They might get kicked out of the valley and tumble down to the next. This can happen if they get enough energy, or through an effect in quantum physics called tunneling, which is apt for this mountainous analogy. Protons and neutrons seem to gather in a valley surrounded by tall peaks — i.e., very stable. However, we can envision another place that’s even more stable, living in an even deeper valley.

If one of the up or down quarks in a proton or neutral were replaced with the next heaviest quark flavor, strange, we call it a strangelet, a particle of strange matter. The name actually has a double connotation. First, it obviously refers to the name of the anomalous quark, but also from the fact that it would be very strange indeed.

First, it would be super dense, packing more matter into a smaller space than anything we’ve ever imagined. With the exception of black holes — which we don’t fully understand — the stopping point for creating infinitely dense matter is a rule in quantum physics called the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which says that two particles cannot occupy the exact same spot in the energy landscape. In other words, each valley is only so big. The strange matter valley would accommodate more strangelets because their three different quarks allow for more possible configurations, making its valley deeper and more favorable.

This “strange matter hypothesis” suggests that normal nuclear matter could someday spontaneously convert into strange matter, like sandcastles collapsing into denser rock formations. If true, strange matter might not be some rare cosmic freak. Some scientists believe it could be the ultimate ground state of all matter, meaning the entire universe might eventually transform into a cosmic blob of strange stuff.

If one small part of our everyday matter came in contact with strange matter, it might catalyze a chain reaction, and, like a chain of dominos, would all convert to the lower energy state. The excess energy would have to go somewhere, which wouldn’t be pleasant but also wouldn’t make a difference. The strange matter valley would be so deep and inescapable that it would not lead to all the wonderful variability we see when regular matter gets together. Imagine a blob of strange matter boiling across a planet like an avalanche, converting ordinary matter into a dense ball of inert quark stuff and staying that way forever.


While tantalizing, the existence of strange matter remains unproven. No experiments have definitively detected it yet, and even its theoretical properties are debated. Even if it exists, the stability of strange matter is still up for grabs. Some calculations suggest it might readily convert back to normal matter, making its cosmic reign a fleeting dream.

So, the story of strange matter is a cosmic cliffhanger. Is it the ultimate form of matter, waiting to engulf the universe in one big strange-out? Or is it just a theoretical blip in the vast cosmos? We’ll keep searching for answers, but one thing’s for sure: strange matter adds a thrilling layer of mystery to our already mind-boggling universe.

If you’re looking for a book that will take you on a wild ride through the universe’s strangest corners, then 42 Reasons to Hate the Universe (And One Reason Not To) is for you. (Strange matter is Reason 37, by the way.) This hilarious and informative exploration of all things cosmically weird and wonderful will have you laughing, cringing, and questioning everything you thought you knew about reality.

From the mind-bending properties of strange matter to the existential dread of facing a vast, indifferent universe, we take you on a journey through the 42 things that make the universe a pretty crappy — in a terrifyingly glorious sort of way — place to live. But fear not, because even in the face of all this cosmic craziness, we did manage to find one reason to love the universe and all its flaws.

So, what are you waiting for? Grab a copy of 42 Reasons to Hate the Universe and get ready to have your mind blown.

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Dr. Chris Ferrie



Chris Ferrie

Quantum theorist by day, father by night. Occasionally moonlighting as a author.