|Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory|
Protons have a constant spin that is an intrinsic particle property like mass or charge. Yet where this spin comes from is such a mystery it’s dubbed the “proton spin crisis.” Initially physicists thought a proton’s spin was the sum of the spins of its three constituent quarks. But a 1987 experiment showed that quarks can account for only a small portion of a proton’s spin, raising the question of where the rest arises. The quarks inside a proton are held together by gluons, so scientists suggested perhaps they contribute spin. That idea now has support from a pair of studies analyzing the results of proton collisions inside the Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y.
Physicists often explain spin as a particle’s rotation, but that description is more metaphorical than literal. In fact, spin is a quantum quantity that cannot be described in classical terms. Just as a proton is not really a tiny marble but rather a jumble of phantom particles appearing and disappearing continuously, its spin is a complex probabilistic property. Yet it is always equal to one half.
Scientific American: Proton Spin Mystery Gains a New Clue, Clara Moskowitz