Playing with particles

Could the principles of particle physics ever be explained by a game? Could a deck of cards ever teach the Standard Model the way Monopoly teaches economics? According to players of the Quark Matter card game, the answer is an easy “yes!”.


Csaba Török and Judit Csörgő (second and third from left) at the award ceremony for the Eötvös University Innovation Contest.

When he was only 17 years old, Hungarian student Csaba Török came up with the idea for the Quark Matter cards. “I wanted people to think of the Standard Model as fun – not just a serious, scientific theory,” says Csaba. “The cards can turn everyone into a pseudo-physicist.” He shared the idea with his friend Judit Csörgő and her physicist father, Tamás Csörgő, and together they went on to develop Quark Matter into the game it is today. Csaba and Judit were both members of the Science Club that Tamás re-organized and mentors at the Berze Secondary School in Gyöngyös, Hungary, and they are now both studying science at the ELTE University, Budapest.

Playing Quark Matter is an original way of teaching non-physicists about sub-atomic particles and the Standard Model. Every card in the deck represents a particle or antiparticle. They can be used in four different games: Quark Matter, Anti, Cosmic Showers, and Let's Detect. Anti is similar to the card game "Speed” and teaches about particle-antiparticle relationships. Cosmic Showers is modeled on the development of cosmic showers. Let's Detect is the most advanced game, based on the rules of semi-leptonic decays of hadrons. Finally, Quark Matter involves mixing the cards on the table to simulate quark-gluon plasma and then extracting the particles as they would emerge from a collision.

The Quark Matter cards received an honorary mention in the 19th Hungarian Contest for Junior Innovators, where they proved popular with every age. “It's a nice feeling to have elementary particles in your hands or in your pocket! As part of the contest, we had to test out the cards on a variety of groups, from schoolchildren to grandmothers, truck drivers and particle physicists,” says Tamás Csörgő, who is also the principal investigator of the Hungarian TOTEM team. “A student who is quick on the draw will often out-play a trained researcher.” On 23 Februray, the cards were also awarded the second prize (pictured) at the Eötvös University of Budapest Innovation Contest.

The cards have just reached their first milestone: selling over 120 decks in the USA. You can purchase your own set of cards online, along with an ebook of instructions for the different games. The book is currently available in English and Hungarian, and a German edition will soon be released. 

by Katarina Anthony