Everything in the universe is made up of atoms — except, of course, atoms themselves. They’re made up of subatomic particles, namely, protons, neutrons, and electrons. While electrons are classified as leptons, protons and neutrons are in a class of particles known as hadrons. Hadrons are comprised of quarks, and there is a lot more theoretical physicists don’t know about quarks than they do know with any degree of certainty.
As far as we know, quarks are the fundamental particle of the universe. You can’t break a quark down into any smaller particles. Imagining them as being uniformly minuscule is not quite accurate, however: while they are tiny, they are not all the same size. Some quarks are larger than others, and they can also join together and create mesons (1 quark + 1 antiquark) or baryons (3 quarks of various flavors).
In terms of possible quark flavors, which are respective to their position, we’ve identified six: up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange. As mentioned, they usually pair up either in quark-antiquark pairs or a quark threesome — so long as the charges ( ⅔, ⅔, and ⅓ ) all add up to positive 1.
The so-called tetraquark pairing has long-eluded scientists; a hadron which would require 2 quark-antiquark pairs, held together by the strong force. Now, it’s not enough for them to simply pair off and only interact with their partner. To be a true tetraquark, all four quarks would need to interact with one another; behaving as quantum swingers, if you will.
It might seem like a pretty straightforward concept: throw four quarks together and they’re bound to interact, right? Well, not necessarily. And that would be assuming they’d pair off stably in the first place, which isn’t a given. As Marek Karliner of Tel Aviv University explained to LiveScience, two quarks aren’t any more likely to pair off in a stable union than two random people you throw into an apartment together. When it comes to both people and quarks, close proximity doesn’t ensure chemistry.
“The big open question had been whether such combinations would be stable,
or would they instantly disintegrate into two quark-antiquark mesons,” Karliner told Futurism. “Many years of experimental searches came up empty-handed, and no one knew for sure whether stable tetraquarks exist.”
Most discussions of tetraquarks up until recently involved those “ad-hoc” tetraquarks; the ones where four quarks were paired off, but not interacting. Finding the bona-fide quark clique has been the “holy grail” of theoretical physics for years – and we’re agonizingly close.
Recalling that quarks are not something we can actually see, it probably goes without saying that predicting the existence of such an arrangement would be incredibly hard to do. The very laws of physics dictate that it would be impossible for four quarks to come together and form a stable hadron. But two physicists found a way to simplify (as much as you can “simplify” quantum mechanics) the approach to the search for tetraquarks.
Several years ago, Karliner and his research partner, Jonathan Rosner of the University of Chicago, set out to establish the theory that if you want to know the mass and binding energy of rare hadrons, you can start by comparing them to the common hadrons you already know the measurements for. In their research they looked at charm quarks; the measurements for which are known and understood (to quantum physicists, at least).
Based on these comparisons, they proposed that a doubly-charged baryon should have a mass of 3,627 MeV, +/- 12 MeV. The next step was to convince CERN to go tetraquark-hunting, using their math as a map.
For all the complex work it undertakes, the vast majority of which is nothing detectable by the human eye, The Large Hadron Collider is exactly what the name implies: it’s a massive particle accelerator that smashes atoms together, revealing their inner quarks. If you’re out to prove the existence of a very tiny theoretical particle, the LHC is where you want to start — though there’s no way to know how long it will be before, if ever, the particles you seek appear.
It took several years, but in the summer of 2017, the LHC detected a new baryon: one with a single up quark and two heavy charm quarks — the kind of doubly-charged baryon Karliner and Rosner were hoping for. The mass of the baryon was 3,621 MeV, give or take 1 MeV, which was extremely close to the measurement Karliner and Rosner had predicted. Prior to this observation physicists had speculated about — but never detected — more than one heavy quark in a baryon. In terms of the hunt for the tetraquark, this was an important piece of evidence: that more robust bottom quark could be just what a baryon needs to form a stable tetraquark.
The perpetual frustration of studying particles is that they don’t stay around long. These baryons, in particular, disappear faster than “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” speed; one 10/trillionth of a second, to be exact. Of course, in the world of quantum physics, that’s actually plenty of time to establish existence, thanks to the LHC.
The great quantum qualm within the LHC, however, is one that presents a significant challenge in the search for tetraquarks: heavier particles are less likely to show up, and while this is all happening on an infinitesimal level, as far as the quantum scale is concerned, bottom quarks are behemoths.
The next question for Rosner and Karliner, then, was did it make more sense to try to build a tetraquark, rather than wait around for one to show up? You’d need to generate two bottom quarks close enough together that they’d hook up, then throw in a pair of lighter antiquarks — then do it again and again, successfully, enough times to satisfy the scientific method.
“Our paper uses the data from recently discovered double-charmed baryon to point, for the first time, that a stable tetraquark *must* exist,” Karliner told Futurism, adding that there’s “a very good chance” the LHCb at CERN would succeed in observing the phenomenon experimentally.
That, of course, is still a theoretical proposition, but should anyone undertake it, the LHC would keep on smashing in the meantime — and perhaps the combination would arise on its own. As Karliner reminded LiveScience, for years the assumption has been that tetraquarks are impossible. At the very least, they’re profoundly at odds with the Standard Model of Physics. But that assumption is certainly being challenged. “The tetraquark is a truly new form of strongly-interacting matter,” Karliner told Futurism,”in addition to ordinary baryons and mesons.”
If tetraquarks are not impossible, or even particularly improbable, thanks to the Karliner and Rosner’s calculations, at least now we have a better sense of what we’re looking for — and where it might pop up.
Where there’s smoke there’s fire, as they say, and while the mind-boggling realm of quantum mechanics may feel more like smoke and mirrors to us, theoretical physicists aren’t giving up just yet. Where there’s a 2-bottom quark, there could be tetraquarks.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to clarify the relationship between hadrons and quarks.