Kelly McSweeney

Jun 13th 2018

Discovering the Odderon: From Abstract Theory to Physical Reality


Researchers have found experimental evidence for the odderon, a nuclear physics effect first predicted by the Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD) theory in the 1980s, according to CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). This is the latest piece of evidence that this abstract mathematical theory of nature may have a physical reality.

The research is still very preliminary — a hint that supports the theory that the odderon exists, rather than definitive proof. We are in the early stages of understanding this phenomenon, and no one knows how this information could be applied to technology. The possibilities are so unknown and vast that they are impossible to predict.

What Is the Odderon?

Jerome Luine, principal scientist and quantum sensing and metrology research lead at Northrop Grumman Next Basic Research, explained that the odderon is a kind of “glueball” consisting of an odd number of “gluons,” which are the carrier of the strong nuclear force that binds quarks together to form hadrons, such as protons.

In the 1970s, scientists predicted that if even-numbered pairs of gluons — called pomerons — could exist, then so could odd-numbered groups of gluons, dubbed the odderon.

The Electron of the Future

We can compare our current understanding of the odderon to when the electron was first discovered at the end of the 19th century, said Luine. “When electrons were discovered, no one had a clue as to what they would eventually be important for. Now, of course it’s the basis for all our electronics, and much more, but no one knew that at the time. All they knew [is] it’s just [a] little quirk of nature,” added Luine. We’re in a similar situation right now with QCD; we don’t know what we’ll do with this knowledge in the future, but it could be critical information for building in future technologies.

At Northrop Grumman, Luine works with a team of scientists who are trying to use quantum mechanics to discover new ways of making measurements that are as precise as physically possible. In other words, they are studying the fundamentals of quantum measurement.

“Modern day physics becoming more and more abstract…doesn’t mean that it isn’t real. It just means that it’s out of our everyday experience — that we can see and touch and smell things, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes,” Luine said. Thus, in order to understand quantum mechanical physics, we have to conduct physical experiments that test mathematical theories.

Can We Prove the Odderon Exists?

Nearly 50 years after scientists conceptualized the odderon, an experiment provides evidence that backs up this quantum theory and suggests that they do, in fact, exist.

The experiment was conducted by physicists at the “Total, elastic and diffractive cross-section measurement experiment,” known as TOTEM, on the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. There, physicists smash protons together and observe what happens, hoping to understand the physical world on a fundamental level. Usually, when protons collide in the LHC, they shatter and create new particles. Sometimes — about 25 percent of the time, according to CERN — instead of breaking apart, protons survive the encounter.

The scientists at TOTEM specialize in studying an effect called elastic scattering, which occurs when protons interact with each other and change direction. In this particular case, they measured the precise angles of scattering when protons collided, and their measurements supported the idea that the odderon exists. To test the quantum theory and look for signs of the odderon, proton-proton scattering should be slightly different from proton-antiproton scattering at high impact energies — and this was what TOTEM observed.

Ultimately, more research is needed to prove the existence of the odderon and understand what we could do with it.