An exotic subatomic particle could be the first amalgamation of more than three quarks — a fundamental building block of atoms — to be produced experimentally. If it is what physicists think it is, the particle could provide clues about the force that holds nuclei together and perhaps about the earliest moments of the universe.
“We have very solid evidence of an unconventional particle,” says Ronald Poling, a physicist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “But it’s the interpretation — the possibility that it has four quarks — that makes it very exciting.” The details of the particle, inelegantly named Zc(3900), appear June 17 in Physical Review Letters.
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Physicists have known since the 1960s that protons and neutrons are made up of quarks, as are hundreds of other particles. All of these particles can be divided into two categories: mesons, which contain two quarks, and baryons (including protons and neutrons), which contain three.
Over the last decade many physicists, including those at the Belle experiment in Japan and the BESIII experiment in China have fruitlessly searched for particles with more than three quarks. Probing a particle’s insides is tough because physicists can’t see quarks directly. Instead they have to measure all the properties they can for a given particle, such as its mass, charge and decay products, looking for unusual characteristics that can be explained only by a peculiar combination of quarks.
The Belle and BESIII teams were both studying an odd particle called Y(4260) when they realized that it decayed to make another interesting particle, Zc(3900). Its mass, says Poling, who is part of the BESIII team, suggests that it is an electrically neutral meson made up of two quarks with opposite charges, called charm and anticharm. But surprisingly, both teams found that Zc(3900) has an electrical charge.
In fact, Poling says no two-quark or three-quark combinations can explain Zc(3900)’s charge and mass. That is leading physicists to the more exotic and exciting conclusion that the particle consists of four quarks: a charm and an anticharm along with an up and an antidown, which are extremely light and create a net positive charge. “The particle’s charge makes it a smoking gun for a four-quark state,” says Tomasz Skwarnicki, a physicist at Syracuse University in New York.
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Assuming the evidence for a four-quark arrangement holds up, the big question will be how those quarks are arranged. Zc(3900) could be a single entity of four quarks, Skwarnicki says, but it could also be a coupling of two mesons, analogous to two atoms linking up to form a molecule.
Poling says that understanding the particle’s internal structure could improve physicists’ understanding of the strong nuclear force, which dictates how quarks bond together to create protons, neutrons and other composite forms of matter.
In addition, physicists believe that just after the Big Bang, matter existed in the form of a hot soup of individual quarks and gluons, particles that carry the strong force. Perhaps, as the universe cooled, that soup solidified into exotic multiquark combinations such as Zc(3900) before breaking up into the particles observed today. “The more complete our picture of all the elementary particles and their interactions,” Poling says, “the better we’ll understand where we started out and how we got to where we are.”