Particle physics 2009: licence to smile

Julie Peasley is the keeper of a very unusual zoo, a colourful set of hand-made plushies that represent the particles of the Standard Model and beyond. Her passion for physics and her art degree combine to give particles their personalities. She visited CERN on 25 May and met the CERNois in the library.

Scientists consider that they have ‘seen’ a particle when their detectors send an electronic signal and a spot appears on their computer screen. The American artist Julie Peasley has gone much further than that and has started sewing toys so that we can not just ‘see’ what particles look like but even play with them!

"When I started," says Julie, "my plushies weren’t smiling, they were just a face. Later on, I realised that I wanted them to all be happy and to appear like they are having fun. Except for the neutron, which insists on remaining neutral." Julie has no doubts, particles have a strong personality, "because this is what is needed to make up the whole Universe".

Julie has been passionate about physics since she was a teenager. She eventually opted for art studies but she never stopped reading physics books and her home library is full of all sorts of scientific publications and even audio-books to accompany her long hours of sewing toys. "I have always been interested in physics and cosmology", explains Julie. "A year and half ago I went to a craft fair and I saw that people were making little soft creatures of various things and it just seemed to me that particles I was studying had personality. So, why not turn them into little characters!"

At the beginning, Julie had little sewing experience, but she decided to give it a go and soon she was selling the results on the web ( Less than three months later, in May last year, she quit her job as a graphic designer and started designing and making the particle zoo full time. The PhysicsWorld magazine rapidly noticed her website and other scientific publications and blogs took over and spread the word. "Initially, I did not have the idea that this could be as popular as it is today", says Julie. "Now I think it has reached the point where people who are interested in physics, scientists, teachers know about it."

In the week of the LHC start-up last September Julie experienced a big spike in her sales to the point that she had to work more than 12 hours a day to satisfy the requests. "During a slow period I make about 5 to 10 particle plushies per day but I can make 30-40 per day when it gets really busy," explains Julie. She has also tried to mass-produce her particles in China "but I only did it for the electron because mass-producing the whole zoo would require an investment of a lot of money upfront and I don’t have enough business yet".

According to Julie’s sales, the public seems to appreciate the theoretical, yet undiscovered, particles more than other ‘standard’ particles. Also, despite the big publicity that antimatter is receiving these days following the release of Hollywood’s blockbuster ‘Angels & Demons’, "antimatter doesn’t sell particularly well. The Higgs is the real top-seller and second place is dark matter. The charm quarks are very popular at Valentine’s day because they are pink and have a rose."

Like any good scientist, the artist will soon explore new territories. Her next toy will be the ‘quantum duck’, due to be made available in the summer. "The quantum duck is my secret project", reveals Julie. "It is going to be like the Russian dolls: you keep opening the doll and you have the duck, the molecule, and it’s going down to quarks and keeps going further and further down". Why a duck? "I think at the time when the idea came to me my calendar had some ducks on it. So, I decided to do a duck!"

Nothing is out of reach for Julie’s artistic imagination. In her zoo, particles can even decay and reveal new objects created in the interaction. "I did the decaying top quark for Fermilab: it is a plush that reverses inside out with a zipper to a big bottom quark and has a mini anti-muon and a mini muon-neutrino inside. I would like to do the neutron decay in the same way."

All particles are cute and full of positive energy. Julie’s favourite ones are the proton and the photon whereas, according to her, nobody seems to like the Tau…Do you already have your favourite?

Choose your favourite

and win it!

Enter the prize draw organized by the Press Office and win a custom particle made by Julie especially for you. To participate, send us a mail at and tell us which one you prefer and why. On June 10 we will let the happy winner know!