The nuclear force (or nucleon-nucleon interaction or residual strong force) is the force between two or more nucleons. It is responsible for binding of protons and neutrons into atomic nuclei. To a large extent, this force can be understood in terms of the exchange of virtual light mesons, such as the pions. Sometimes the nuclear force is called the residual strong force, in contrast to the strong interactions which are now understood to arise from quantum chromodynamics (QCD). This phrasing arose during the 1970s when QCD was being established. Before that time, the strong nuclear force referred to the inter-nucleon potential. After the verification of the quark model, strong interaction has come to mean QCD.
Since nucleons have no color charge, the nuclear force does not directly involve the force carriers of quantum chromodynamics, the gluons. However, just as electrically neutral atoms (each composed of cancelling charges) attract each other via the second-order effects of electrical polarization, via the van der Waals forces (London forces), so by analogy, "color-neutral" nucleons may attract each other by a type of polarization which allows some basically gluon-mediated effects to be carried from one color-neutral nucleon to another, via the virtual mesons which transmit the forces, and which themselves are held together by virtual gluons. It is this van der Waals-like nature which is responsible for the term "residual" in the term "residual strong force." The basic idea is that while the nucleons are "color-neutral," just as atoms are "charge-neutral," in both cases, polarization effects acting between near-by neutral particles allow a "residual" charge effect to cause net charge-mediated attraction between uncharged species, although it is necessarily of a much weaker and less direct nature than the basic forces which act internally within the particles.
In 1935, Hideki Yukawa made the earliest attempt to explain the nature of the nuclear force. According to his theory, massive bosons (mesons) mediate the interaction between two nucleons. Although, in light of QCD, meson theory is no longer perceived as fundamental, the meson-exchange concept (where hadrons are treated as elementary particles) continues to represent the best working model for a quantitative NN potential.
Historically, it was a formidable task to describe the nuclear force phenomenologically, and the first semi-empirical quantitative models came in the mid-1950s. There has been substantial progress in experiment and theory related to the nuclear force. Most basic questions were settled in the 1960s and 1970s. In recent years, experimenters have concentrated on the subtleties of the nuclear force, such as its charge dependence, the precise value of the πNN coupling constant, improved phase shift analysis, high-precision NN data, high-precision NN potentials, NN scattering at intermediate and high energies, and attempts to derive the nuclear force from QCD.
The nuclear force is only felt among hadrons. At much smaller separations between nucleons the force is very powerfully repulsive, which keeps the nucleons at a certain average separation. Beyond about 1.7 femtometer (fm) separation, the force drops to negligibly small values.
At short distances, the nuclear force is stronger than the Coulomb force; it can overcome the Coulomb repulsion of protons inside the nucleus. However, the Coulomb force between protons has a much larger range and becomes the only significant force between protons when their separation exceeds about 2.5 fm.
The nuclear force is nearly independent of whether the nucleons are neutrons or protons. This property is called charge independence. It depends on whether the spins of the nucleons are parallel or antiparallel, and has a noncentral or tensor component. This part of the force does not conserve orbital angular momentum, which is a constant of motion under central forces.
Two-nucleon systems such as the deuteron as well as proton-proton or neutron-proton scattering are ideal for studying the NN force. Such systems can be described by attributing a potential (such as the Yukawa potential) to the nucleons and using the potentials in a Schrödinger equation. The form of the potential is derived phenomenologically, although for the long-range interaction, meson-exchange theories help to construct the potential. The parameters of the potential are determined by fitting to experimental data such as the deuteron binding energy or NN elastic scattering cross sections (or, equivalently in this context, so-called NN phase shifts).
A more recent approach is to develop effective field theories for a consistent description of nucleon-nucleon and three-nucleon forces. In particular, chiral symmetry breaking can be analysed in terms of an effective field theory (called chiral perturbation theory) which allows perturbative calculations of the interactions between nucleons with pions as exchange particles.
The ultimate goal of nuclear physics would be to describe all nuclear interactions from the basic interactions between nucleons. This is called the microscopic or ab initio approach of nuclear physics. There are two major obstacles to overcome before this dream can become reality:
This is an active area of research with ongoing advances in computational techniques leading to better first-principles calculations of the nuclear shell structure. Two- and three-nucleon potentials have been implemented for nuclear masses up to A=12.
Nuclear potentials can be local or global: local potentials are limited to a narrow energy range and/or a narrow nuclear mass range, while global potentials, which have more parameters and are usually less accurate, are functions of the energy and the nuclear mass and can therefore be used in a wider range of applications.