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Mind-Blowing Puzzle about Protons at the Quantum Level Found

Protons consist of "Intrinsic" charm quarks that has more mass than protons

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Niloy Chattaraj
Niloy Chattaraj
COO of Transcontinental Times, A double gold medalist engineer who covers social issues, science, and Indian history.

UNITED STATES: In a new study published in the August 18 issue of the journal Nature, scientists find that because of the strange nature of quantum physics, protons are at times made up of constituent particles heavier than protons! This mind-blowing finding is published by a team of scientists known as the Neural Network Parton Distribution Function Collaboration (NNPDF). The NNPDF collaboration determines the structure of the proton using contemporary methods of artificial intelligence (AI).

Proton Background 

Proton, Quarks and Gluons | Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Protons are one of the three types of particles that conform to atoms. They reside in the nucleus along with Neutrons. Protons are not elementary particles but they are made up of other subatomic particles known as quarks. There are six kinds of quarks in nature. Three are light quarks, ones lighter than protons — up(u), down(d), and strange(s).  The other three are heavy quarks, ones heavier than protons — charm(c), bottom(b), and top(t).

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Protons are generally thought to consist of two up quarks and one down quark(uud). These quarks are bound together by a sea of messenger particles known as gluons. But, quantum physics suggests there is no such thing as empty space, not even within protons. What is apparently empty space is actually buzzing with an infinite number of virtual particles and virtual antiparticles. These virtual particles briefly pop in and out of existence in a billionth of a second. As such, there is a chance that quarks other than the up and down kind can manifest inside protons.

Previous research found that heavy quarks can occur within protons in extreme high-energy collisions and that protons can also contain strange quarks and strange anti-quarks under normal circumstances. However, it was uncertain whether heavy quarks might also regularly help make up protons.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic charm quarks

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“Extrinsic” charm quarks are the ones that don’t normally belong within protons. They would appear in the centre of collisions, popping into existence with the help of the high energies of the impacts. Gluons, which stick together quarks in protons, are responsible for the creation of these extrinsic charm particles.  In contrast, “intrinsic” charm quarks are the ones that existed within the protons before the collisions. It would appear far away from the centre of the impacts, moving in the same direction of travel as the proton they were originally part of.

What Next

In the new study, a team of scientists, known as the NNPDF Collaborator, analyzed data from particle collisions. The collisions may be between a proton and an electron, or between two protons at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. They searched for evidence of charm quarks, the lightest of the heavy quarks. A proton has a mass of about 938 million electron volts (MeV), whereas the charm quark has a mass of about 1,2700 MeV. 

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Using AI software the scientists analyzed huge volumes of particle collider data and detected evidence of intrinsic charm quarks within protons.  They found that intrinsic charm quarks make up about 0.62 per cent of the mass of the proton. It’s like cutting an apple pie and finding an apple that is heavier than the apple pie itself! 

The theoretical physicist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Juan Rojo, told, “This remarkable result highlights the beautiful and ever-surprising character of quantum theory — we have shown that the proton contains constituents, charm quarks, whose mass is larger than that of the proton itself.”

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