Research Highlights

Unraveling protons

Published online 27 November 2017

Scientists probe subatomic particles to reveal their secret structures.

Pakinam Amer

Through a powerful tool, a consortium of international scientists have attempted, in new research published in Nature Communications, to unravel one of the greatest mysteries in modern nuclear physics: the internal structure of nucleons. 

Nucleons are either type of a subatomic particle — a proton or a neutron — that form an atom. The team, led by Maxime Defurne of the University of Paris-Saclay, France and which includes Malek Mazouz of University of Monastir, Tunisia, used a method called deeply virtual Compton scattering (DVCS) to probe protons and determine their fundamental constituents using a beam of high-energy electrons1.

Using DVCS, the scientists were able to visualize a proton’s internal structure in 3D.  

Significantly, the experiments shed light on gluons, also known as “messenger particles” or “force carriers”. Gluons mediate the nuclear force between elementary particles, known as quarks, and are responsible for the strong interaction that binds them together.  Gluons and quarks constitute the building blocks of protons and neutrons. 

According to the scientists, the internal dynamics of the nucleon and the fundamental questions surrounding the origin of its spin and the mechanism of its particle confinement have remained elusive, but utilizing DVCS can finally help them address some of these questions.


  1. Defurne, M. et al. A glimpse of gluons through deeply virtual compton scattering on the proton. Nat. Commun. 8, 1408 (2017).