Scientists try to solve the mystery of the helium nucleus – and end up more confused than ever

An illustration of a helium atom, with two protons and neutrons in its nucleus.

One of nature’s simplest elements is giving scientists a major headache after new research shows that protons and neutrons in helium atoms don’t behave as theory suggests they should. The mismatch between theoretical predictions of how these particles behave and what they actually do could point to new physics beyond the Standard Model, the reigning model that describes the zoo of subatomic particles. particles.

In research published in April in the journal Letters of Physical Examination, the physicists zapped a container of helium atoms with electrons to knock the helium nuclei into an excited state, causing the nucleus to temporarily expand, like inhaling a chest. The team found that the response of protons and neutrons in the nucleus to the electron beam differed significantly from what the theory predicts – confirming conclusions drawn from experiments made decades ago. New research confirms that this mismatch is real, not an artifact of experimental uncertainty. Rather, it seems that scientists do not have sufficient knowledge of the low-energy physics that governs the interactions between particles in the nucleus.

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