Quarks have fractional charges compared to the protons that they form. There are six types of quarks based upon mass, and the particles also have a quality called color, which is a way of describing how the strong force holds them together. Color is carried by gluons — a sort of messenger for the strong force that bind quarks together. (They're analogous to photons.)
A team of University of Kansas physicists plan to use a device installed at the Large Hadron Collider, a massive particle accelerator located in a 17-mile (27-kilometer) tunnel between France and Switzerland, to investigate the strong interaction between quarks and gluons.
"The idea is to get a better understanding of the proton and the heavy ion structure — such as Lead for instance — and to study a new phenomenon called saturation," Christophe Royon, a University of Kansas physics professor who is leading the research, explains in an email. "When two proton or two ions collide at very high energy, we are sensitive to their substructure — quarks and gluons — and we can probe some region where the density of gluons gets very large."
"An analogy would be the metro in New York at peak hours when the metro is completely congested," Royon continues. "In that case, the gluons do not behave as single identities but can show collective behavior, in the same way as a crowded metro, if somebody falls, everybody will feel it since people are so close to one another. At some point, the protons or heavy ion can behave like a solid object, like a glass, called color glass condensate. This is what we want to see at the LHC and also at the future Electron-Ion Collider in the U.S."
Royon says that finding proof of the existence of this dense gluon material would answer one of the biggest unanswered questions about quarks. "This is a new state of matter," he says. "Some hints already appeared at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider or the Large Hadron Collider but nothing is certain yet. It would be an important discovery, and both the Large Hadron Collider and the Electron-Ion Collider are ideal machines to see this."
Scientists also wonder whether there might be something even smaller than a quark. "It begs the question, is there another level yet?" West says. "We don't know the answer to that."