Unlike other forces, the force between quarks increases as the distance between the quarks increases. Up to distances about the diameter of a proton, quarks behave as if they were free of one another, a condition called asymptotic freedom. As the quarks move farther apart, the gluons that move between them utilize the energy that they draw from the quark's motion to create more gluons—the larger the number of gluons exchanged among quarks, the stronger the binding force. The gluons thus appear to lock the quarks inside the elementary particles, a condition called confinement. Gluons can also bind with one another to form composite particles called glueballs.
According to QCD, only colorless objects may exist in isolation. Therefore, individual gluons and individual quarks cannot exist in nature, and only indirect evidence of their existence can be detected. In 1979, compelling evidence was found when quarks were shown to emit gluons during studies of particle collisions at the German national high-energy physics laboratory in Hamburg.
See J. Diasdebens and S. Costa Ramos, ed., The Physics of Quark-Gluon Plasma (1988); F. J. Yndurain, The Theory of Quark and Gluon Interactions (1993).
In technical terms, they are vector gauge bosons that mediate strong color charge interactions of quarks in quantum chromodynamics (QCD). Unlike the neutral photon of quantum electrodynamics (QED), gluons themselves participate in strong interactions. The gluon has the ability to do this as it carries the color charge and so interacts with itself, making QCD significantly harder to analyze than QED.
This may be difficult to understand intuitively. Quarks carry three types of color charge; antiquarks carry three types of anticolor. Gluons may be thought of as carrying both color and anticolor, but to correctly understand how they are combined, it is necessary to consider the mathematics of color charge in more detail.
In quantum mechanics, the states of particles may be added according to the principle of superposition; that is, they may be in a "combined state" with a probability, if some particular quantity is measured, of giving several different outcomes. A relevant illustration in the case at hand would be a gluon with a color state described by:
This is read as "red-antiblue plus blue-antired." (The factor of the square root of two is required for normalization, a detail which is not crucial to understand in this discussion.) If one were somehow able to make a direct measurement of the color of a gluon in this state, there would be a 50% chance of it having red-antiblue color charge and a 50% chance of blue-antired color charge.
It is often said that the stable strongly-interacting particles observed in nature are "colorless," but more precisely they are in a "color singlet" state, which is mathematically analogous to a spin singlet state. Such states allow interaction with other color singlets, but not with other color states; because long-range gluon interactions do not exist, this illustrates that gluons in the singlet state do not exist either.
The color singlet state is:
In words, if one could measure the color of the state, there would be equal probabilities of it being red-antired, blue-antiblue, or green-antigreen.
There are eight remaining independent color states, which correspond to the "eight types" or "eight colors" of gluons. Because states can be mixed together as discussed above, there are many ways of presenting these states, which are known as the "color octet." One commonly used list is:
These are equivalent to the Gell-Mann matrices; the translation between the two is that red-antired is the upper-left matrix entry, red-antiblue is the left middle entry, blue-antigreen is the bottom middle entry, and so on. The critical feature of these particular eight states is that they are linearly independent, and also independent of the singlet state; there is no way to add any combination of states to produce any other. (It is also impossible to add them to make , , or ; if it were, then the forbidden singlet state could also be made.) There are many other possible choices, but all are mathematically equivalent, at least equally complex, and give the same physical results.
Technically, QCD is a gauge theory with SU(3) gauge symmetry. Quarks are introduced as spinor fields in Nf flavours, each in the fundamental representation (triplet, denoted 3) of the colour gauge group, SU(3). The gluons are vector fields in the adjoint representation (octets, denoted 8) of colour SU(3). For a general gauge group, the number of force-carriers (like photons or gluons) is always equal to the dimension of the adjoint representation. For the simple case of SU(N), the dimension of this representation is N2−1.
In terms of group theory, the assertion that there are no color singlet gluons is simply the statement that quantum chromodynamics has an SU(3) rather than a U(3) symmetry. There is no known a priori reason for one group to be preferred over the other, but as discussed above, the experimental evidence supports SU(3).
Since gluons themselves carry color charge (again, unlike the photon which is electrically neutral), they participate in strong interactions. These gluon-gluon interactions constrain color fields to string-like objects called "flux tubes", which exert constant force when stretched. Due to this force, quarks are confined within composite particles called hadrons. This effectively limits the range of the strong interaction to 10-15 meters, roughly the size of an atomic nucleus. (Beyond a certain distance, the energy of the flux tube binding two quarks increases linearly. At a large enough distance, it becomes energetically more favorable to pull a quark-antiquark pair out of the vacuum rather than increase the length of the flux tube.)
Gluons also share this property of being confined within hadrons. One consequence is that gluons are not directly involved in the nuclear forces between hadrons. The force mediators for these are other hadrons called mesons.
Although in the normal phase of QCD single gluons may not travel freely, it is predicted that there exist hadrons which are formed entirely of gluons — called glueballs. There are also conjectures about other exotic hadrons in which real gluons (as opposed to virtual ones found in ordinary hadrons) would be primary constituents. Beyond the normal phase of QCD (at extreme temperatures and pressures), quark gluon plasma forms. In such a plasma there are no hadrons; quarks and gluons become free particles.
Experimentally, confinement is verified by the failure of free quark searches. Neither free quarks nor free gluons have ever been observed. Although there have been hints of exotic hadrons, no glueball has been observed either. Quark-gluon plasma has been found recently at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratories (BNL).
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