Excited helium nuclei inflate like balloons, offering physicists a chance to study the strong nuclear force which binds the nucleus’s protons and neutrons. Kristina Armitage/Quanta Magazine
Topics: Modern Physics, Nobel Prize, Particle Physics, Quantum Mechanics, Steven Weinberg, Theoretical Physics
A new measurement of the strong nuclear force, which binds protons and neutrons together, confirms previous hints of an uncomfortable truth: We still don’t have a solid theoretical grasp of even the simplest nuclear systems.
To test the strong nuclear force, physicists turned to the helium-4 nucleus, which has two protons and two neutrons. When helium nuclei are excited, they grow like an inflating balloon until one of the protons pops off. Surprisingly, in a recent experiment, helium nuclei didn’t swell according to plan: They ballooned more than expected before they burst. A measurement describing that expansion, called the form factor, is twice as large as theoretical predictions.
“The theory should work,” said Sonia Bacca, a theoretical physicist at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz and an author of the paper describing the discrepancy, which was published in Physical Review Letters. “We’re puzzled.”
For many years, physicists didn’t understand how to use the strong force to understand the stickiness of protons and neutrons. One problem was the bizarre nature of the strong force — it grows stronger with increasing distance rather than slowly dying off. This feature prevented them from using their usual calculation tricks. When particle physicists want to understand a particular system, they typically parcel out a force into more manageable approximate contributions, order those contributions from most important to least important, then simply ignore the less important contributions. With the strong force, they couldn’t do that.
Then in 1990, Steven Weinberg found a way to connect the world of quarks and gluons to sticky nuclei. The trick was to use an effective field theory — a theory that is only as detailed as it needs to be to describe nature at a particular size (or energy) scale. To describe the behavior of a nucleus, you don’t need to know about quarks and gluons. Instead, at these scales, a new effective force emerges — the strong nuclear force transmitted between nucleons by the exchange of pions.
A New Experiment Casts Doubt on the Leading Theory of the Nucleus, Katie McCormick, Quanta Magazine