Snow White and the Seven Quarks

by Daniel Gottesman

Once upon a time, there was a graduate student named Snow White. She was called Snow White because her skin was as pale as snow, due to the fact that she never went outside. Snow White had an Evil Thesis Advisor (ETA), who never let her use her talents for physics, but instead made her spend all her time grading papers and wiring circuits. Consequently, Snow White spent most of her time hiding from the ETA.

While lurking around the basement of the physics building, one day Snow White encountered a cage with seven funny-looking little creatures. "Who are you?" she asked.

"We're the seven quarks," they answered in unison, and quickly introduced themselves -- Up, Down, Strange, Charmed, Top, Bottom, and Doc. "It's a pleasure to meet you," said Charmed. "Mmrfl grackle snrth," said Strange. "How do I look?" asked Bottom. "Fat," answered Top briefly. "Not as fat as you," retorted Down. "Can't we ever stop fighting?" asked an exasperated Up. Doc merely chewed on a carrot.

"But why are you in that cage?" asked Snow White.

"We're confined," they said.

So Snow White released the seven quarks, and they sang their triumphant quark song: "Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it's round the ring we go!" Soon Snow White was deleriously happy, sleeping all day, and spending the nights in the physics building with her friends the quarks.

Meanwhile, back in the lab, the ETA had completely forgotten about Snow White, who she hadn't seen in weeks. One day, she turned to "Magic" Mirror, another of her grad students, who she used mostly to look up facts in reference books. There was not enough office space in the building, so Mirror had his desk in the corridor outside the lab. The ETA turned to Mirror and asked, "Mirror, Mirror, in the hall, who is the smartest of us all?"

Mirror responded, "Um ... ah ... well, I would say it's ... ah ... Snow White."

The ETA flew into a rage. This insult was too great to let pass. The ETA summoned her postdoc.

"Postdoc," she commanded, "bring me Snow White's notebook!"

The postdoc knew the ways of graduate students, so he came to the physics building late at night, and sure enough he found Snow White there with the quarks. "The ETA wants to see your notebook," he told her.

Snow White burst into tears and pled with the postdoc, "Oh please don't take it to her! It's empty, of course, and if she finds out, she'll put me back to grading papers and wiring circuits!"

Her plight touched the postdoc, who had only recently been a grad student himself, so he filled a notebook full of incomprehensible scribbling and brought that to the ETA.

The ETA studied the notebook carefully, but couldn't make heads or tails of it. She looked at Snow White's neat handwriting on the tape labeling the drawers of circuit components and realized the postdoc's fraud.

"I knew I shouldn't have trusted him with something this important," she sighed. "I will have to go after her myself. How demeaning."

The ETA colored her hair grey and practiced walking stooped. Looking like a harmless professor emeritus, she lurked in the physics building until late that night when Snow White came in. "Here, dearie, I have a lovely thesis topic for you."

"A thesis topic!" Snow White said eagerly. "Maybe I will graduate one day after all!" She dived right into work on the topic the disguised ETA had given her. However, the ETA had wickedly given her a rotten topic, and upon beginning work on it, Snow White immediately fell into a coma, unable to make any progress at all, or even produce a publication.

The seven quarks stood around her, pining away, until one day a young assistant professor happened by. He saw Snow White working on the hopeless problem, surrounded by the seven quarks. "Why work on that old problem when you are surrounded by these free quarks?" he asked her. She started abruptly awake from her coma, and realized the trick the ETA had played on her.

"Come work for me," he said.

"With pleasure," she responded. She switched advisors and had graduated within three months with a shiny new thesis -- "An observation of free quarks," quickly followed by a set of papers on the physical parameters of the Doc quark. And Snow White and the assistant professor lived happily ever after on the money from the Nobel prize.

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