Jefferson Lab Hopes to Bulk Up 'Strong Force' Theory

The new chief scientist at Jefferson Lab in Newport News is excited by this month's announcement that three U.S. scientists won the Nobel Prize for physics. They got the $1.3 million prize for their study of subatomic particles called quarks.

Jefferson Lab, also known as the Thomas Jefferson Nuclear Accelerator Facility, is all about the study of quarks. The lab's cafeteria is even named "Quark Cafe."

Quarks are the basic building blocks of matter, found in the nucleus of an atom. The three Nobel-winning scientists studied the "strong force," or "color force," that holds quarks together. They came up with a mathematical framework to show how the force becomes weaker the closer quarks are to each other.

The framework, called Quantum ChromoDynamics, helps explain why scientists have never been able to observe individual quarks in a lab.

An electron beam like the one at Jefferson Lab can free quarks from each other's embrace only for a short period before the strong force creates new pairs.

Anthony Thomas, who became chief scientist at Jefferson Lab earlier this year, is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science who worked at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, for 21 years. Scientists there use mathematical models and powerful computers to theorize the relationships between quarks.

At Jefferson Lab, scientists test theories using a subatomic racetrack called the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility.

Thomas hopes a proposed upgrade at the facility will help physicists further study the theory of strong force — especially at low energies, where quarks are just stopping to act as if they're free particles. In this low-energy environment, Jefferson Lab scientists might make unexpected discoveries under the Nobel- winning theory of strong force.

"We're looking at a region that's not fully understood," Thomas said.