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Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at The Ohio State University, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of Your Place in the Universe. Sutter contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
All four known forces of nature have their own unique place. Gravity, electromagnetism, weak nuclear, strong nuclear: Each one governing some little domain of our lives. While our everyday experiences are dominated by the gravity of the Earth and the electromagnetism of light and fridge magnets, the twin nuclear forces play key roles, too — just at very, very tiny scales.
Imagine - Size - System - Hands - Oort
How tiny? Imagine yourself ballooning up to become the size of the solar system. Your hands swim through the Oort Cloud itself, the planets nestle above your belly button. You are so large that electrical signals take weeks or even months to make their journey through your nervous system, making even the simplest gestures achingly slow.
That's the difference between your current size (roughly a couple meters) and 10^15 meters.
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Reverse - Scale - Body - Feels - System
Now, run it in reverse. Imagine a scale so small that your current body feels as vast as the solar system. A scale where your movements eke along at the slowest of paces. This incredibly tiny scale is the femtometer: 10^-15 meters. It's the scale of the atomic nucleus.
From way up here, it's tempting to think of the proton as a single particle. A hard shell of positive charge and mass, able to bounce and knock around as easily as a billiard ball. But in reality, a proton is made of three smaller particles. These particles have the delightfully quirky name of quarks. There are a total of six kinds of quarks in nature, but for our close examination of the proton we only need to...
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