The study of atomic nuclei has long captivated scientists, but there are still many aspects of nucleons, such as protons and neutrons, that remain elusive. One of the most challenging questions in this field is determining the radius of the proton. Despite years of research and various measurement techniques, scientists have struggled to obtain accurate and precise results. However, a group of theoretical physicists from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) has made significant advancements in this area, revolutionizing the calculation of the proton’s electric charge radius without relying on experimental data. These groundbreaking findings, along with a stable theory prediction for the magnetic charge radius of the proton, have been detailed in three preprints published on the arXiv server.
In 2010, researchers introduced a new technique involving laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen, a special type of hydrogen where the electron is replaced by its heavier relative, the muon. This method revealed a smaller value for the proton radius compared to measurements obtained using traditional electron-proton scattering and regular hydrogen. In the scientific community, this discrepancy sparked a debate regarding whether this deviation indicated the existence of new physics beyond the Standard Model or simply reflected systematic uncertainties intrinsic to different measurement approaches.
Advances in Theoretical Calculations
To shed light on this proton radius puzzle, theoretical calculations play a crucial role. In 2021, a team led by Prof. Dr. Hartmut Wittig of the Mainz Cluster of Excellence PRISMA+ achieved a major breakthrough by performing lattice calculations with unprecedented precision. These computations, based on the theory of quantum chromodynamics (QCD), which describes the interaction of forces in atomic nuclei, provided strong evidence for the smaller value of the proton radius.
Now, the Mainz research group has made further strides in their calculations. Miguel Salg, a doctoral student in the research group, has obtained remarkable results that substantially enhance and expand upon their previous work. The researchers have refined their statistical analysis, better constrained systematic errors, and calculated missing fractions, enabling them to eliminate the need for experimental data entirely. These advancements mark a significant step forward in determining the proton’s true radius.
To mathematically model the complex processes within atomic nuclei, the Mainz scientists employ lattice field theory, which treats quarks – the elementary building blocks of matter – as if they were distributed over points in a discrete space-time lattice, much like a crystal structure. Powerful simulation methods utilizing supercomputers are then employed to calculate the properties of nucleons. The researchers begin by analyzing electromagnetic form factors, which describe the distribution of electric charge and magnetization within the proton. From these form factors, the proton radius can be derived.
Beyond the electric charge radius, the proton also possesses a magnetic charge radius, which presents yet another puzzle for physicists. Leveraging the principles of QCD, the Mainz researchers have extended their calculations to determine the magnetic charge radius. This innovative theoretical prediction provides valuable insight into the proton’s characteristics and represents a significant milestone in understanding the fundamental properties of these elusive particles.
Not only have the Mainz theorists calculated the electric and magnetic form factors and the respective radii, but they have also made vital contributions to related areas of research. Their precise knowledge of these form factors allowed them to derive the Zemach radius of the proton purely from QCD, which serves as a crucial input quantity for experimental measurements on muonic hydrogen.
This achievement underscores the remarkable progress made in lattice QCD calculations, showcasing the growing precision and reliability of these theoretical models. The Mainz research group’s findings not only advance our understanding of the proton’s charge and magnetic radii but also reveal the significant potential of theoretical physics in unraveling complex mysteries in the realm of atomic nuclei.
With the new calculations supporting the smaller value, the evidence continues to accumulate in favor of the hypothesis that the smaller proton radius is indeed accurate. These breakthroughs open the door to further exploration and understanding of the proton’s fundamental properties. The Mainz research group’s findings provide valuable insights into the interplay of forces within the atomic nucleus and contribute to the ongoing quest for a comprehensive understanding of nucleons.
As the field of theoretical physics continues to evolve, advancements like these in calculating the proton charge radius pave the way for exciting discoveries and profound insights into the nature of matter. The Mainz researchers’ work not only contributes to the scientific community’s knowledge but also inspires future generations of physicists to push the boundaries of our understanding of the universe.