There's a Giant Mystery Hiding Inside Every Atom in the Universe - Science and Nonduality (SAND)

There’s a Giant Mystery Hiding Inside Every Atom in the Universe

The trio in the room are three quarks inside a neutron or proton.

“A light breeze is blowing outside,” he said.

That light breeze is the force holding the proton or neutron to nearby nucleons that are “outside” the window. Even if a little snuck through the closed window, Hen said, it would barely affect you.

And as long as nucleons stay in their orbitals, that's the case. However, he said, recent experiments have shown that at any given time, about 20% of the nucleons in a nucleus are in fact outside their orbitals. Instead, they're paired off with other nucleons, interacting in “short range correlations.” Under those circumstances, the interactions between the nucleons are much higher-energy than usual, he said. That's because the quarks poke through the walls of their individual nucleons and start to directly interact, and those quark-quark interactions are much more powerful than nucleon-nucleon interactions.

These interactions break down the walls separating quarks inside individual protons or neutrons, Hen said. The quarks making up one proton and the quarks making up another proton start to occupy the same space. This causes the protons (or neutrons, as the case may be) to stretch and blur, Hen said. They grow a lot, albeit for very short periods of time. That skews the average size of the entire cohort in the nucleus — producing the EMC effect.

Most physicists now accept this interpretation of the EMC effect, Hen said. And Miller, who worked with Hen on some of the key research, agreed.

But not everyone thinks Hen's group has the problem worked out. Ian Cloët, a nuclear physicist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, said he thinks Hen's work draws conclusions that the data doesn't fully support.

“I think the EMC effect is still unresolved,” Cloët told Live Science. That's because the basic model of nuclear physics already accounts for a lot of the short-range pairing Hen describes. Yet, “if you use that model to try and look at the EMC effect, you will not describe the EMC effect. There is no successful explanation of the EMC effect using that framework. So in my opinion, there's still a mystery.”

Hen and his collaborators are doing experimental work that is “valiant” and “very good science,” he said. But it doesn't fully resolve the problem of the atomic nucleus.

“What is clear is that the traditional model of nuclear physics… cannot explain this EMC effect,” he said. “We now think that the explanation must be coming from QCD itself.”

QCD stands for quantum chromodynamics — the system of rules that govern the behavior of quarks. Shifting from nuclear physics to QCD is a bit like looking at the same picture twice: once on a first-generation flip phone — that's nuclear physics — and then again on a high-resolution TV — that's quantum chromodynamics. The high-res TV offers a lot more detail, but it's a lot more complicated to build.

The problem is that the complete QCD equations describing all the quarks in a nucleus are too difficult to solve, Cloët and Hen both said. Modern supercomputers are about 100 years away from being fast enough for the task, Cloët estimated. And even if supercomputers were fast enough today, the equations haven't advanced to the point where you could plug them into a computer, he said.

Still, he said, it's possible to work with QCD to answer some questions. And right now, he said, those answers offer a different explanation for the EMC effect: Nuclear Mean-Field Theory.

He disagrees that 20% of nucleons in a nucleus are bound up in short-range correlations. The experiments just don't prove that, he said. And there are theoretical problems with the idea.

That suggests we need a different model, he said.

“The picture that I have is, we know that inside a nucleus are these very strong nuclear forces,” Cloët said. These are “a bit like electromagnetic fields, except they're strong force fields.”

The fields operate at such tiny distances that they're of negligible magnitude outside the nucleus, but they're powerful inside of it.

In Cloët's model, these force fields, which he calls “mean fields” (for the combined strength they carry) actually deform the internal structure of protons, neutrons and pions (a type of strong force-carrying particle).

“Just like if you take an atom and you put it inside a strong magnetic field, you will change the internal structure of that atom,” Cloët said.

In other words, mean-field theorists think the sealed-up room Hen described has holes in its walls, and wind is blowing through to knock the quarks around, stretching them out.

Cloët acknowledged that it's possible short-range correlations likely explain some portion of the EMC effect, and Hen said mean fields likely do play a role as well.

“The question is, which dominates,” Cloët said.

Miller, who has also worked extensively with Cloët, said that the mean field has the advantage of being more well-grounded in theory. But Cloët hasn't yet done all the necessary calculations, he said.

And right now the weight of experimental evidence suggests that Hen has the better of the argument.

Hen and Cloët both said the results of experiments in the next few years could resolve the question. Hen cited an experiment underway at Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia that will move nucleons closer together, bit by bit, and allow researchers to watch them change. Cloët said he wants to see a “polarized EMC experiment” that would break up the effect based on the spin (a quantum trait) of the protons involved. It might reveal unseen details of the effect that could aid calculations, he said.

All three researchers emphasized that the debate is friendly.

“It's great, because it means we're still making progress,” Miller said. “Eventually, something's going to be in the textbook and the ball game is over. The fact that there's two competing ideas means that it's exciting and vibrant. And now finally we have the experimental tools to resolve these issues.”

This article was first published on


#80 Awakening Hope

Podcast with

An exploration of Hope in trying times and RevD's upcoming courses.

The Rising Voice of the Feminine

Video with

Mirabai Starr in conversation with the audience at SAND18 US.

My Orphan Country

Video with

A poem by Palestinian refugee Nibal Khalid

Indigenous Solar Eclipse Stories From Across Turtle Island

Article by

From rodents of unusual size to flaming arrows, communities across North America share solar eclipse traditions

ALDUNYA, The Goddess

Video with

She, who speaks in climactic seed bursts of inspiration and steady sunrises the color of commitment.

#79 Restoring Wholeness

Podcast with

Exploring Internal Family Systems from theory to practice.

Chasing Cicadas

Article by

Amid the cacophony of a cicada emergence, Anisa George reflects on her choice to leave the Bahá’í faith and its promise of a new civilization

Akhilandeshwari: The Power of Brokenness

Article by

We have choices in every moment to renew and recreate ourselves and by extension the world

Support SAND with a Donation

Science and Nonduality is a nonprofit organization. Your donation goes towards the development of our vision and the growth of our community.
Thank you for your support!