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Weird Quantum Experiment Shows Protons Have More 'Charm' Than We Thought

One of the subatomic particles that make up an atom's nucleus is the proton. Protons are incredibly tiny, but even more so are the quarks that make them up. Quarks come in several "flavors," or varieties, including up, down, weird, charm, bottom, and top. A proton is typically believed to be composed of two up quarks and one down quark.

But according to recent research, it's more complicated than that. A charm quark, an elementary particle 1.5 times as massive as the proton itself, may also be found in protons. Stranger still, even when the charm quark is present in the proton, the heavy particle only bears roughly half of the proton's mass.

The discovery is entirely based on the probabilistic realm of quantum physics. Despite being hefty, the charm quark has a low probability of being in a proton, thus its large mass and low probability essentially cancel each other out. In other words, even if the charm quark is there, the proton doesn't absorb the entire mass of the quark, according to a story from Science News.

Protons are exceedingly intricate while being vital to the construction of atoms, which constitute all matter. The underlying makeup of protons is unknown to physicists. According to quantum physics, protons might occasionally include quarks other than the up and down ones that are known to be present, according to Stefano Forte of the University of Milan. Forte was speaking on the podcast Nature Briefing (opens in new tab). A new study demonstrating the charm quark in protons was co-authored by Forte and released in the journal Nature on August 17.

The different quarks kinds are six. There are three elements that are heavier than protons and three that are lighter. To determine if a proton might carry a quark heavier than itself, physicists opted to start with the charm quark because it is the lightest of the heavy batch. They accomplished this by applying a fresh perspective to 35 years' worth of particle-smashing data.

At particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider, the largest atom smasher in the world, which is located close to Geneva, scientists hurl particles against each other at breakneck speeds to learn about the structure of subatomic and elementary particles. These particle-smashing records, which date back to the 1980s, were acquired by researchers with the nonprofit NNPDF cooperation. They include illustrations of experiments in which photons, electrons, muons, neutrinos, and even other protons collided with protons. Researchers can reassemble the particles' initial state by examining the collision-related debris.

In the current study, the researchers gave all of this collision data to a machine-learning system that was programmed to hunt for patterns without considering the potential appearance of the structures. Possible structures and their chance of existing were returned by the algorithm.

According to Forte of Nature Briefing, the study showed a "small but not insignificant" possibility of discovering a charm quark. The results constitute the "first concrete proof" that the charm quark may exist, according to Forte, even if the amount of evidence wasn't sufficient for the researchers to announce the irrefutable discovery of the charm quark in protons.

Forte said that the proton's structure is significant because, in order to find new fundamental particles, physicists will need to find minute discrepancies between what theories predict and what is actually observed. To do this, exceedingly accurate measurements of subatomic structures are needed.

The illusive "charm" within a proton still needs additional information, at least for the time being. Future research might be helpful, according to Tim Hobbs, a theoretical physicist at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois. Future research could include the Electron-Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, which is slated to be built.

Published first on Live Science.

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