Mar 16, 2023

How Big Is a Proton? Neutrinos Weigh In

Posted by in category: particle physics

The team’s measurement of the proton’s radius was 0.73 femtometer, even smaller than the 0.84-femtometer electric charge radius. In either case, it is almost 10,000 times smaller than a hydrogen atom.

To be clear, this apparent 13 percent shrinkage is not a blow to the electric charge radius measurements and not as shocking as it may seem. The two measurements are complementary and work together to offer a big picture view of the little proton. Because they measure different distributions of matter, the discrepancy does not challenge our understanding of the proton the same way its previous 4 percent shrinkage did. Instead it adds to that understanding.

“The thing that makes this measurement really interesting is not whether or not it agrees with the electron measurements of the electromagnetic proton radius but the fact that it didn’t have to agree at all,” says Deborah Harris, co-spokesperson for the MINERvA experiment. This is because the way neutrinos interact with up quarks versus down quarks is very different from how quarks interact with electrons. Instead of an electromagnetic interaction, neutrinos interact via a different force called the weak force. (But don’t let its name fool you—the weak force is quite strong across subatomic distances!)

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