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Quarks are among the elementary particles of the Standard Model of Particle Physics. Besides up and down quarks, which are the basic building blocks of ordinary matter in the Universe, four other quark flavours exist and are also abundantly produced in collisions at particle accelerators like the CERN Large Hadron Collider. Quarks are not observed in isolation due to a fundamental aspect of the strong interaction, known as colour charge confinement. Confinement requires particles that carry the charge of the strong interaction, called colour, to form states that are colour-neutral. This in turn forces quarks to undergo a process of hadronisation, i.e. to form hadrons, which are composite particles mostly made of a quark and an antiquark (mesons) or of three quarks (baryons). The only exception is the heaviest quark, the top, which decays before it has time to hadronise.
At particle accelerators, quarks with a large mass, such as the charm quark, are produced only in the initial interactions between the colliding particles. Depending on the type of beam used, these can be electron-positron, electron-proton or proton-proton collisions (as at the LHC). The subsequent hadronisation of charm quarks into mesons (D0, D+, Ds) or baryons (Λc, Ξc, …) occurs on a long space-time scale and was considered to be universal - that is, independent of the species of the colliding particles - until the recent findings by the ALICE collaboration.
The large data samples collected during Run 2 of the LHC allowed ALICE to count the vast majority of charm quarks produced in the proton-proton collisions by reconstructing the decays of all charm meson species and of the most abundant charm baryons (Λc and Ξc). The charm quarks were found to form baryons almost 40% of the time, which is four times more often than what was expected based on measurements previously made at colliders with electron beams (e+e- and ep in the figure below).
These measurements show that the process of colour-charge confinement and hadron formation is still a poorly understood aspect of the strong interaction. Current theoretical explanations of baryon enhancement include the combination of multiple quarks produced in proton-proton collisions and new mechanisms in the neutralisation of the colour charge. Additional measurements during the next run of the LHC will allow these theories to be scrutinised and further our knowledge of the strong interaction.