What’s the Big Deal About the Pentaquark?

The pentaquark, a novel arrangement of five elementary particles, has been detected at the Large Hadron Collider. This particle may hold the key to a better understanding of the Universe's strong nuclear force. [Image credit: CERN/LHCb experiment]

“Three quarks for Muster Mark!,” wrote James Joyce in his labyrinthine fable, Finnegan’s Wake. By now, you may have heard this quote – the short, nonsensical sentence that eventually gave the name “quark” to the Universe’s (as-yet-unsurpassed) most fundamental building blocks. Today’s physicists believe that they understand the basics of how quarks combine; three join up to form baryons (everyday particles like the proton and neutron), while two – a quark and an antiquark – stick together to form more exotic, less stable varieties called mesons. Rare four-quark partnerships are called tetraquarks. And five quarks bound in a delicate dance? Naturally, that would be a pentaquark. And the pentaquark, until recently a mere figment of physics lore, has now been detected at the LHC!

So what’s the big deal? Far from just being a fun word to say five-times-fast, the pentaquark may unlock vital new information about the strong nuclear force. These revelations could ultimately change the way we think about our superbly dense friend, the neutron star – and, indeed, the nature of familiar matter itself.

Physicists know of six types of quarks, which are ordered by weight. The lightest of the six are the up and down quarks, which make up the most familiar everyday baryons (two ups and a down in the proton, and two downs and an up in the neutron). The next heaviest are the charm and strange quarks, followed by the top and bottom quarks. And why stop there? In addition, each of the six quarks has a corresponding anti-particle, or antiquark.

Six types of quark, arranged from left to right by way of their mass, depicted along with the other elementary particles of the Standard Model. The Higgs boson was added to the right side of the menagerie in 2012. (Image Credit: Fermilab)

An important attribute of both quarks and their anti-particle counterparts is something called “color.” Of course, quarks do not have color in the same way that you might call an apple “red” or the ocean “blue”; rather, this property is a metaphorical way of communicating one of the essential laws of subatomic physics – that quark-containing particles (called hadrons) always carry a neutral color charge.

For instance, the three components of a proton must include one red quark, one green quark, and one blue quark. These three “colors” add up to a neutral particle in the same way that red, green, and blue light combine to create a white glow. Similar laws are in place for the quark and antiquark that make up a meson: their respective colors must be exactly opposite. A red quark will only combine with an anti-red (or cyan) antiquark, and so on.

The pentaquark, too, must have a neutral color charge. Imagine a proton and a meson (specifically, a type called a J/psi meson) bound together – a red, a blue, and a green quark in one corner, and a color-neutral quark-antiquark pair in the other – for a grand total of four quarks and one antiquark, all colors of which neatly cancel each other out.

Physicists are not sure whether the pentaquark is created by this type of segregated arrangement or whether all five quarks are bound together directly; either way, like all hadrons, the pentaquark is kept in check by that titan of fundamental dynamics, the strong nuclear force.

The strong nuclear force, as its name implies, is the unspeakably robust force that glues together the components of every atomic nucleus: protons and neutrons and, more crucially, their own constituent quarks. The strong force is so tenacious that “free quarks” have never been observed; they are all confined far too tightly within their parent baryons.

But there is one place in the Universe where quarks may exist in and of themselves, in a kind of meta-nuclear state: in an extraordinarily dense type of neutron star. In a typical neutron star, the gravitational pressure is so tremendous that protons and electrons cease to be. Their energies and charges melt together, leaving nothing but a snug mass of neutrons.

Physicists have conjectured that, at extreme densities, in the most compact of stars, adjacent neutrons within the core may even themselves disintegrate into a jumble of constituent parts.

The neutron star… would become a quark star.

The difference between a neutron star and a quark star (Chandra)
The difference between a neutron star and a quark star. (Image Credit: Chandra)

Scientists believe that understanding the physics of the pentaquark may shed light on the way the strong nuclear force operates under such extreme conditions – not only in such overly dense neutron stars, but perhaps even in the first fractions of a second following the Big Bang. Further analysis should also help physicists refine their understanding of the ways that quarks can and cannot combine.

The data that gave rise to this discovery – a whopping 9-sigma result! – came out of the LHC’s first run (2010-2013). With the supercollider now operating at double its original energy capacity, physicists should have no problem unraveling the mysteries of the pentaquark even further.

A preprint of the pentaquark discovery, which has been submitted to the journal Physical Review Letters, can be found here.

Proton Parts

The proton has three parts, two up quarks and one down quark … and the gluons which these three quarks exchange, which is how the strong (nuclear) force works to keep them from getting out.

The proton’s world is a totally quantum one, and so it is described entirely by just a handful of numbers, characterizing its spin (a technical term, not to be confused with the everyday English word; the proton’s spin is 1/2), electric charge (+1 e, or 1.602176487(40)×10-19 C), isospin (also 1/2), and parity (+1). These properties are derived directly from those of the proton parts, the three quarks; for example, the up quark has an electric charge of +2/3 e, and the down -1/3 e, which sum to +1 e. Another example, color charge: the proton has a color charge of zero, but each of its constituent three quarks has a non-zero color charge – one is ‘blue’, one ‘red’, and one ‘green’ – which ‘sum’ to zero (of course, color charge has nothing whatsoever to do with the colors you and I see with our eyes!).

Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig independently came up with the idea that the proton’s parts are quarks, in 1964 (though it wasn’t until several years later that good evidence for the existence of such parts was obtained). Gell-Mann was later awarded the Nobel Prize of Physics for this, and other work on fundamental particles (Zweig has yet to receive a Nobel).

The quantum theory which describes the strong interaction (or strong nuclear force) is quantum chromodynamics, QCD for short (named in part after the ‘colors’ of quarks), and this explains why the proton has the mass it does. You see, the up quark’s mass is about 2.4 MeV (mega-electron volts; particle physicists measure mass in MeV/c2), and the down’s about 4.8 MeV. Gluons, like photons, are massless, so the proton should have a mass of about 9.6 MeV (= 2 x 2.4 + 4.8), right? But it is, in fact, 938 MeV! QCD accounts for this enormous difference by the energy of the QCD vacuum inside the proton; basically, the self-energy of ceaseless interactions of quarks and gluons.

Further reading: The Physics of RHIC (Brookhaven National Lab), How are the protons and neutrons held together in a nucleus?, and Are protons and neutrons fundamental? (the Particle Adventure) are three good places to go!

Some of the Universe Today articles relevant to proton parts are: Final Detector in Place at the Large Hadron Collider, Hidden Stores of Deuterium Discovered in the Milky Way, and New Study Finds Fundamental Force Hasn’t Changed Over Time.

Two Astronomy Cast episodes you won’t want to miss, on proton parts: The Strong and Weak Nuclear Forces, and Inside the Atom.