The Atomic Walker

The Atomic Walker

Imagine you could make yourself amazingly small and walk up to an atom. The first thing you hit would be a cloud of electrons whizzing at great speed, so they look like a blur. The electron was the first elementary particle to be discovered and it's still as elementary as ever. Elementary means scientists have not discovered any internal - so far.

You plow your way through the cloud of electrons and finally come to a peaceful empty space. You travel this for ages, and then on the horizon you see a small object. This is the nucleus of the atom. As you get closer you see it's made of two type of particles - protons and neutrons - bound together very tightly.

The number of protons in the nucleus is exactly equal to the number of electrons you passed in the outer cloud, but the number of neutrons in the nucleus can vary.

For a while scientists thought protons and neutrons were elementary, but not so. It turns out they are complicated objects. So scientists built particle colliders to learn more about the structure of the proton. The most famous is the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) in Switzerland. The method is simple - crash two protons together an incredible speed to see what comes out. From this scientists learn what's inside the proton.

It turns to that a lot is going on inside the proton. It's built from more elementary particles called quarks, bound together by an incredible strong force field generated by particles called gluons.

Since the proton is amazingly small why would nature decide to give it such complex internal structure?

That's a philosophical question scientists can never answer. But they are working hard to learn more about the proton.

Content written and posted by Ken Abbott