Atomic nucleus mysteries will be unraveled by this particle accelerator

In the 20th century, physicists made impressive advances in particle physics, which describes how the visible matter of the universe is formed. The discoveries resulted in the Standard Model, the best and most accurate explanation we have for everything that can be observed, but it is not yet complete. To unravel the greatest mysteries about the strong force, scientists will have a new instrument — the Electron-Ion Collider.

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Expected in the mid-19’s 1024, the strong force explains a strange problem at the time: atomic nuclei are formed by protons, with a positive electrical charge, and neutrons, electrically neutral. If all protons always have the same type of charge, they should repel each other, not join together to form the nucleus of an atom.

The strong force hypothesis postulated that a fundamental force acted on the nuclei, and experiments showed that it really did. This led to the conclusion that neutrons were not the fundamental (ie, indivisible) particles, but formed by another type of particles, called quarks.

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The Standard Model of particles is the most successful in explaining the matter of the universe ( Image: Reproduction/Beatriz Abdalla/USP Journal)

Later, the theory of quantum chromodynamics described what was happening inside atomic nuclei. The attraction, or rather the “glue” between the neutrons was a result of the attraction between three different “colors” of quarks (although they have no real coloration). In other words, quarks have no positive or negative charge, but blue, red and green charges.

But that wasn’t all. Quarks with different colors attract each other because of an interaction mediated by other particles, called gluons. Thus, scientists discovered that since photons are the fundamental particles that mediate electromagnetic interaction, gluons are mediators of the strong force. But there is a significant difference: in addition to holding the quarks together, the gluons themselves carry the color charge (green, blue or red) of this interaction. In other words, in addition to mediating, these particles also participate in the strong force.

This may seem like the end of the line for investigations into the atomic nucleus, but far from that, maybe it’s just the start. There are big mysteries to solve, like the proton spin crisis and the proton ray puzzle. To help with this task, the new particle collider and accelerator will try to “photograph” the internal structure of the protons, to study the strong force in all possible dimensions.

Representation of the strong force, which through gluons “sticks” quarks together to form protons and neutrons (Image: Reproduction/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Of course it is impossible to actually photograph subatomic particles, as they are much smaller than the wavelength of any type of existing light. But The Electron-Ion Collider (EIC) can collide electrons with protons to produce a readout of the interaction and thus map what happens. This can provide a kind of three-dimensional snapshot of the internal structure, revealing how quarks and gluons work.

Specifically, the electron beam will reveal the arrangement of these particles to determine the true role of gluons in matter in the universe, which can go far beyond functioning as “glue” for quarks. For example, protons and neutrons make up the bulk of everything we see, but their quarks are a thousand times lighter than the protons and neutrons they make. Could gluons be responsible for the rest? Perhaps. But they don’t have any mass of themselves.

The study of this mystery about the mass of atomic nuclei is just one of the researches that will be carried out at the EIC to understand how matter “manages” to exist and remain united in the universe, forming molecules , objects, and even people like you and me. Ultimately, the new installations may provide answers about the very beginning of the universe, in the first moments after the Big Bang, when all that existed was a soup formed only by free quarks and gluons.

Quarks are “condemned” to confinement and can never be free; the more you try to separate them, the more the strong force will act to prevent, even creating new quarks (Image: Play/Play/Ziming Liu)

Coordinated by the Brookhaven National Laboratory, USA, and developed by an international collaboration of 1.300 scientists around the world, the electron-ion collider will consist of two intersecting accelerators, one producing an intense beam of electrons, the another a beam of high-energy protons. It will use existing ion sources, a pre-accelerator chain, a superconducting magnetic ion storage ring, and other infrastructure from the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, located at Brookhaven National Laboratory, NY.

We will still have to wait about ten years to see the collider finally be completed, and more or less to check the first results. But everything must be rewarded with the scientific advances it can bring, not only in physical theory, but also in the development of new technologies, such as computer chips, new drugs and cancer treatments, among many other benefits.

Source: Brookhaven National Laboratory, Science Alert

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