Dancing with the quarks: peeking inside the proton

Dr. Maria Zurek

14 billion years ago the Universe was born in the Big Bang.

Ladies, Gentlemen, and Those Beyond The Binary.

But what happened in the first seconds just after it determined the structure of matter we are all made of.

I’m a particle physicist, and in my research I try to understand how the world around us is made from its most basic constituents.

In the beginning the Universe was hot, dense, and filled only with the most fundamental building blocks of matter – called elementary particles. Then, while extending and cooling, the atoms were created.

In the center of the simplest hydrogen atom we find the tiny proton. And I ask: Is it the most fundamental particle? What actually is the proton?

Well, the short answer is: the proton is a mess, it’s a complete mess with a complicated internal structure. While the hydrogen atom could be compared to a well-organized ballet dance, where the electron is dancing elegantly around the proton; The proton itself would be a rock concert full of drunk sweaty people bumping into each other.

The proton is full of, as far as we know, elementary particles called quarks and anti-quarks, and gluons, binding everything together. They are constantly interacting and they are in constant movement. It’s a mess.

In my experiment called STAR, I reproduce the conditions few seconds after the Big Bang to look inside the proton. I’m curious how its magnetic properties, which define the stability of matter, and lay the foundations for the fields of chemistry and biology, arise from its messy mosh-pit structure.

I smash protons accelerated almost to the speed of light, and study the debris of these collisions in huge particle detectors, to ultimately probe interactions between the basic constituents of the proton.

What have I learned? Well, first of all that Nature is complicated. I learned that gluons play an important role in describing the magnetic properties of the proton. It’s a crucial step in understanding the structure of matter. But, as physicists, it just tickled our curiosity. We’ll build even more precise experiment, called an electron ion collider, to look even deeper into the proton, and actually get closer to answering the question of why our Universe exists as it is?