Julie Peasley lives in a small Silver Lake apartment above a bicycle shop, with five cats and the most prevalent subatomic particles in the universe. Protons, neutrons, gluons, quarks, photons, muons. That sort of thing. And they're cute as hell. Since 2008, Chicago-born, Denver-raised Peasley has been the sole owner-operator of the Particle Zoo, creating small plush toys based on the Standard Model of Physics. In the last seven years, she's made and sold some 41,000 of the little buggers, all sparked by word-of-mouth.
"I'm just a girl sitting in her room in isolation," Peasley says. "It's just me in here working, shipping stuff out around the world."
Armed with a bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Colorado and a closet passion for "weird scientific stuff," in 2007 Peasley found herself "a very unhappy graphic designer, freelancing around corporate cubicles."
Her life changed after she attended a lecture at UCLA by theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss. "He was talking about the Big Bang and how all the matter was condensed. That was the catalyst for it," she says. "I got really excited to do something. But I had no plan, no business plan. I just thought it was a cool thing and someone might like these things."
That pivotal moment coincided with the DIY craft movement. "People were making weird stuff, like milk cartons out of felt," she recalls. "I thought, I don't see any particles, like science-y stuff, so I decided to make a photon."
God, too, can make a photon, but He didn't have to learn to sew. That was Peasley's first hurdle.
"I didn't know how," she admits. "I had a sewing machine that someone had given me from a yard sale; it was a $30, '70s piece of crap. I just had to figure it out. But it was simple. The photon was like a white pillow with a smiley face on it. It hasn't changed that much. They're just happy particles. Except the neutron — he's neutral. And neutrinos. They have no mass, so I gave it a little bandit mask because it's devious. People loved that."
Her designs are simple yet inarguable.
"I didn't have to conform to anything because you can't see them. I just made them up and people said, 'That's good. We'll say that's a gluon.'"
Peasley mounted a website, and academics responded instantly. "There was nothing like it in the science and physics communities. Word got around and I started getting orders."
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She worked 12 hours a day at the sewing machine under her loft bed, sometimes making 100 particles per week.
In 2012, business got a bump. "They found the Higgs boson, the God particle," she recalls. "My sales got crazy, so that was good for me."
Where the Particle Zoo is headed is dictated by science. "One of the biggest mysteries now is dark matter," she explains, "and whether gravitons exist. I hope they do, 'cause I'll make another particle toy out of it."