Beyond the Visible Universe: New Research Reveals How Gravity Influences the Quantum Realm

Particle Physics Plasma Relativity

Nuclear physicists have discovered gravity’s profound influence on the quantum scale, revealing the strong force’s distribution within protons for the first time. This groundbreaking research, combining historical theoretical insights with modern experimental data, offers unprecedented understanding of the proton’s internal dynamics and sets the stage for future discoveries in nuclear science.

Nuclear physicists at Jefferson Lab have mapped the distribution of the strong force within the proton, employing a framework that links to gravity, opening a new pathway for exploration.

Gravity’s influence is unmistakably evident throughout the observable universe. Its effects are observed in the synchronized orbits of moons around planets, in comets that deviate from their paths due to the gravitational pull of large stars, and in the majestic spirals of enormous galaxies. These magnificent phenomena highlight the role of gravity on the grandest scales of matter. Meanwhile, nuclear physicists are uncovering the significant contributions of gravity at the very smallest scales of matter.

New research conducted by nuclear physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility is using a method that connects theories of gravitation to interactions among the smallest particles of matter to reveal new details at this smaller scale. The research has now revealed, for the first time, a snapshot of the distribution of the strong force inside the proton. This snapshot details the shear stress the force may exert on the quark particles that make up the proton. The result was recently published in Reviews of Modern Physics.

Insights into Proton Structure

According to the lead author on the study, Jefferson Lab Principal Staff Scientist Volker Burkert, the measurement reveals insight into the environment experienced by the proton’s building blocks. Protons are built of three quarks that are bound together by the strong force.

“At its peak, this is more than a four-ton force that one would have to apply to a quark to pull it out of the proton,” Burkert explained. “Nature, of course, does not allow us to separate just one quark from the proton because of a property of quarks called ‘color.’ There are three colors that mix quarks in the proton to make it appear colorless from the outside, a requirement for its existence in space. Trying to pull a colored quark out of the proton will produce a colorless quark/anti-quark pair, a meson, using the energy you put in to attempt to separate the quark, leaving a colorless proton (or neutron) behind. So, the 4-tons is an illustration of the strength of the force that is intrinsic in the proton.”

The result is only the second of the proton’s mechanical properties to be measured. The proton’s mechanical properties include its internal pressure (measured in 2018), its mass distribution (physical size), its angular momentum, and its shear stress (shown here). The result was made possible by a half-century-old prediction and two-decade-old data.

In the mid-1960s, it was theorized that if nuclear physicists could see how gravity interacts with subatomic particles, such as the proton, such experiments could reveal the proton’s mechanical properties directly.

“But at that time, there was no way. If you compare gravity with the electromagnetic force, for instance, there is 39 orders of magnitude of difference – So it’s completely hopeless, right?” explained Latifa Elouadhriri, a Jefferson Lab staff scientist and co-author on the study.

Theoretical Foundations and Experimental Breakthroughs

The decades-old data came from experiments conducted with Jefferson Lab’s Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF), a DOE Office of Science user facility. A typical CEBAF experiment would entail an energetic electron interacting with another particle by exchanging a packet of energy and a unit of angular momentum called a virtual in this article describing the first result obtained from this research.

Future Directions and Theoretical Advancements

The researchers say their next step is to work on extracting the information they need from the existing DVCS data to enable the first determination of the proton’s mechanical size. They also hope to take advantage of newer, higher-statistics, and higher-energy experiments that are continuing the DVCS research in the proton.

In the meantime, the study co-authors have been amazed at the plethora of new theoretical efforts, detailed in hundreds of theoretical publications, that have begun to exploit this newly discovered avenue for exploring the mechanical properties of the proton.

“And also, now that we are in this new era of discovery with the 2023 Long Range Plan of Nuclear Science released recently. This will be a major pillar of the direction of science with new facilities and new detector developments. We’re looking forward to seeing more of what can be done,” Burkert said.

Elouadhriri agrees.

“And in my view, this is just the beginning of something much bigger to come. It has already changed the way we think about the structure of the proton,” she said.

“Now, we can express the structure of subnuclear particles in terms of forces, pressure, and physical sizes that also non-physicists can relate to,” added Burkert.

Reference: “Colloquium: Gravitational form factors of the proton” by V. D. Burkert, L. Elouadrhiri, F. X. Girod, C. Lorcé, P. Schweitzer and P. E. Shanahan, 22 December 2023, Reviews of Modern Physics.
DOI: 10.1103/RevModPhys.95.041002

The study was funded by the US Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, Carl G. and Shirley Sontheimer Research Fund.

Read More


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here