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Ricky Nathvani | |

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Spun out of proportion: The Proton Spin Crisis

In the late 1980s, as particle colliders probed deeper into the building blocks of nature, there were hints of a strange and paradoxical behaviour in the heart of atoms. Fundamental particles have a curious quantum mechanical property known as “spin”, which the electron carries in magnitude ½. While the description of electron’s spin is fairly simple, protons are made up of many particles whose “spins” can add together in complicated ways and yet remarkably, its total spin turns out to be the same as the electron: ½. This led to one of the great mysteries of modern physics: how do all the particles inside the proton conspire together to give it a ½ spin? And what might this mean for our understanding of hadrons, the particles that make up most of the visible universe?

[This article is largely intended for a lay-audience and contains an introduction to foundational ideas such as spin. If you’ve had a basic introduction to Quantum Mechanics before, you may wish to skip to section marked —— ]

We’ve known about the proton’s existence for nearly a hundred years, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that we knew all there was to know about it. For many of us, our last exposure to the word “proton” was in high school chemistry, where they were described as a little sphere of positive charge that clumps with neutrons to make atomic nuclei, around which negatively charged electrons orbit to create all the atoms, which make up Life, the Universe and Everything1.


The simple, three-quark model of a proton (each coloured circle is a type of “quark”).

Like many ideas in science, this is a simplified model that serves as a good introduction to a topic, but skips over the gory details and the bizarre, underlying reality of nature. In this article, we’ll focus on one particular aspect, the quantum mechanical “spin” of the proton. The quest to measure its origin has sparked discovery, controversy and speculation that has lasted 30 years, the answer to which is currently being sought at a unique particle collider in New York.

The first thing to note is that protons, unlike electrons2, are composite particles, made up from lots of other particles. The usual description is that the proton is made up of three smaller “quarks” which, as far as we know, can’t be broken down any further. This picture works remarkably well at low energies but it turns out at very high energies, like those being reached at the at the LHC, this description turns out to be inadequate. At that point, we have to get into the nitty-gritty and consider things like quark-antiquark pairs that live inside the proton interacting dynamically with other quarks without changing its overall charge. Furthermore, there are particles called gluons that are exchanged between quarks, making them “stick” together in the proton and playing a crucial role in providing an accurate description for particle physics experiments.

So on closer inspection, our little sphere of positive charge turns out to be a buzzing hive of activity, with quarks and gluons all shuffling about, conspiring to create what we call the proton. It is by inferring the nature of these particles within the proton that a successful model of the strong nuclear force, known as Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD), was developed. The gluons were predicted and verfied to be the carriers of this force between quarks. More on them later.

Proton structure

A more detailed model of the proton. The golden chains between the quarks (the coloured spheres) are representations of gluons, transferred between them. Quark anti-quark pairs are also visible with arrows representing spins.

That’s the proton, but what exactly is spin? It’s often compared to angular momentum, like the objects in our everyday experience might have. Everyone who’s ever messed around on an office chair knows that once you get spun around in one, it often takes you a bit of effort to stop because the angular momentum you’ve built up keeps you going. If you did this a lot, you might have noticed that if you started spinning with your legs/arms outstretched and brought them inwards while you were spinning, you’d begin to spin faster! This is because angular momentum (L) is proportional to the radial (r) distribution of matter (i.e. how far out things are from the axis of rotation) multiplied by the speed of rotation3 (v). To put it mathematically L = m × v × r where m is just your constant mass. Since L is constant, as you decrease r (by bringing your arms/legs inwards), v (the speed at which you’re spinning) increases to compensate. All fairly simple stuff.

So clearly, for something to have angular momentum it needs to be distributed radially. Surely r has to be greater than 0 for L to be greater than 0. This is true, but it turns out that’s not all there is to the story. A full description of angular momentum at the quantum (atomic) level is given by something we denote as “J”. I’ll skip the details, but it turns out J = L + S, where L is orbital angular momentum, in a fashion similar to what we’ve discussed, and S? S is a slightly different beast.

Both L and S can only take on discrete values at the microscopic level, that is, they have quantised values. But whereas a point-like particle cannot have L > 0 in its rest frame (since if it isn’t moving around and v = 0, then L = 0), S will have a non-zero value even when the particle isn’t moving. S is what we call Spin. For the electron and quarks, it takes on the value of ½ in natural units.

Spin has a lot of very strange properties. You can think of it like a little arrow pointing in a direction in space but it’s not something we can truly visualise. One is tempted to think of the electron like the Earth, a sphere spinning about some kind of axis, but the electron is not a sphere, it’s a point-like particle with no “structure” in space. While an electron can have many different values of L depending on its energy (and atomic structure depends on these values), it only has one intrinsic magnitude of spin: ½. However, since spin can be thought of as an arrow, we have some flexibility. Loosely speaking, spin can point in many different directions but we’ll consider it as pointing “up” (+½) or “down” (- ½). If we try to measure it along a particular axis, we’re bound to find it in one of these states relative to our direction of measurement.


Focus on one of the red faces. When the cube rotates every 360 degrees, the red ribbon appears to go above and below the cube alternatively! Because the cube is coupled to its environment, it takes 720 degrees to return it to it’s original orientation.

One of the peculiar things about spin-½ is that it causes the wave-function of the electron to exhibit some mind bending properties. For example, you’d think rotating any object by 360 degrees would put it back into exactly the same state as it was, but it turns out that doesn’t hold true for electrons. For electrons, rotating them by 360 degrees introduces a negative sign into their wave-function! You have to spin it another 360 degrees to get it back into the same state! There are ways to visualise systems with similar behaviour (see right) but that’s just a sort of “metaphor” for what really happens to the electron. This links into the famous conclusion of Pauli’s that no two identical particles with spin-½ (or any other half-integer spin) can share the same quantum mechanical state.


Spin is an important property of matter that only really manifests on the quantum scale, and while we can’t visualise it, it ends up being important for the structure of atoms and how all solid objects obtain the properties they do. The other important property it has is that the spin of a free particle likes to align with magnetic fields4 (and the bigger the spin, the greater the magnetic coupling to the field). By using this property, it was discovered that the proton also had angular momentum J = ½. Since the proton is a stable particle, it was modelled to be in a low energy state with L = 0 and hence J = S = ½ (that is to say, the orbital angular momentum is assumed to be zero and hence we may simply call J, the “spin”). The fact the proton has spin and that spin aligns with magnetic fields, is a crucial element to what makes MRI machines work.

Once we got a firm handle on quarks in the late 1960s, the spin structure of the proton was thought to be fairly simple. The proton has spin-½. Quarks, from scattering experiments and symmetry considerations, were also inferred to have spin-½. Therefore, if the three quarks that make up the proton were in an “up-down-up” configuration, the spin of the proton naturally comes out as ½ – ½ + ½ = ½. Not only does this add up to the measured spin, but it also gives a pleasant symmetry to the quantum description of the proton, consistent with the Pauli exclusion principle (it doesn’t matter which of the three quarks is the “down” quark). But hang on, didn’t I say that the three-quarks story was incomplete? At high energies, there should be a lot more quark-antiquark pairs (sea quarks) involved, messing everything up! Even so, theorists predicted that these quark-antiquark pairs would tend not to be polarised, that is, have a preferred direction, and hence would not contribute to the total spin of the proton.

If you can get the entirety of the proton spinning in a particular direction (i.e. polarising it), it turns out the scattering of an electron against its constituent quarks should be sensitive to their spin! Thus, by scattering electrons at high energy, one could check the predictions of theorists about how the quarks’ spin contributes to the proton.

In a series of perfectly conducted experiments, the theory was found to be absolutely spot on with no discrepancy whatsoever. Several Nobel prizes were handed out and the entire incident was considered resolved, now just a footnote in history. OK, not really.

In truth, the total opposite happened. Although the experiments had a reasonable amount of uncertainty due to the inherent difficulty of polarising protons, a landmark paper by the European Muon Collaboration found results consistent with the quarks contributing absolutely no overall spin to the proton whatsoever! The measurements could be interpreted with the overall spin from the quarks being zero5. This was a complete shock to most physicists who were expecting verification from what was supposed to be a fairly straightforward measurement. Credit where it is due, there were theorists who had predicted that the assumption about orbital angular momentum (L = 0) had been rather ad-hoc and that L > 0 could account for some of the missing spin. Scarcely anyone would have expected, however, that the quarks would carry so little of the spin. Although the nuclear strong force, which governs how quarks and gluons combine to form the proton, has been tested to remarkable accuracy, the nature of its self-interaction makes it incredibly difficult to draw predictions from.

The feynman diagram for Deep Inelastic Scattering (electron line at the top, proton on the bottom). This type of scattering is sensitive to quark spin.

The Feynman diagram for Deep Inelastic Scattering (electron line at the top, proton on the bottom, with a photon exchanged between them). This type of scattering is sensitive to quark spin.

Future experiments (led by father and son rivals, Vernon and Emlyn Hughes6 of CERN and SLAC respectively) managed to bring this to a marginally less shocking proposal. The greater accuracy of the measurements from these collaborations had found that the total spin contributions from the quarks was actually closer to ~30%. An important discovery was that the sea quarks, thought not to be important, were actually found to have measurable polarisation. Although it cleared up some of the discrepancy, it still left 60-70% of spin unaccounted for. Today, following much more experimental activity in Deep Inelastic Scattering and precision low-energy elastic scattering, the situation has not changed in terms of the raw numbers. The best estimates still peg the quarks’ spin as constituting only about 30% of the total.

Remarkably, there are theoretical proposals to resolve the problem that were hinted at long before experiments were even conducted. As mentioned previously, although currently impossible to test experimentally, the quarks may carry orbital angular momentum (L) that could compensate for some of the missing spin. Furthermore, we have failed to mention the contribution of gluons to the proton spin. Gluons are spin-1 particles, and were thought to arrange themselves such that their total contribution to the proton spin was nearly non-existent.


The Brookhaven National Laboratory where RHIC is based (seen as the circle, top right).

The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) in New York is currently the only spin-polarised proton collider in the world. This gives it a unique sensitivity to the spin structure of the proton. In 2014, an analysis of the data collected at RHIC indicated that the gluons (whose spin contribution can be inferred from polarised proton-proton collisions) could potentially account for up to 30 of the missing 70% of proton spin! About the same as the quarks. This would bring the “missing” amount down to about 40%, which could be accounted for by the unmeasurable orbital angular momentum of both quarks and gluons.

As 2016 kicks into gear, RHIC will be collecting data at a much faster rate than ever after a recent technical upgrade that should double it’s luminosity (loosely speaking, the rate at which proton collisions occur). With the increased statistics, we should be able to get an even greater handle on the exact origin of proton spin. 

The astute reader, provided they have not already wandered off, dizzy from all this talk of spinning protons, may be tempted to ask “Why on earth does it matter where the total spin comes from? Isn’t this just abstract accountancy?” This is a fair question and I think the answer is a good one. Protons, like all other hadrons (similar, composite particles made of quarks and gluons) are not very well understood at all. A peculiar feature of QCD called confinement binds individual quarks together so that they are never observed in isolation, only bound up in particles such as the proton. Understanding the spin structure of the proton can inform our theoretical models for understanding this phenomenon.

This has important implications, one being that 98% of the mass of all visible matter does not come from the Higgs Boson. It comes from the binding energy of protons! And the exact nature of confinement and precise properties of QCD have implications for the cosmology of the early universe. Finally, scattering experiments with protons have already revealed so much to fundamental physics, such as the comprehension of one of the fundamental forces of nature. As one of our most reliable probes of nature, currently in use at the LHC, understanding them better will almost certainly aid our attempts to unearth future discoveries.

Kind regards to Sebastian Bending (UCL) for several suggestions (all mistakes are unreservedly my own).


[1] …excluding dark matter and dark energy which constitute the dark ~95% of the universe.

[2] To the best of our knowledge.

[3] Strictly speaking the component of velocity perpendicular to the radial direction.

[4] Sometimes, spins in a medium like water like to align against magnetic fields, causing an opposite magnetic moment (known as diamagnetism). Since frogs are mostly water, this effect can and has been used to levitate frogs.

[5] A lot of the information here has been summarised from this excellent article by Robert Jaffe, whose collaboration with John Ellis on the Ellis-Jaffe rule led to many of the predictions discussed here.

[6] Emlyn was actually the spokesperson for SLAC, though he is listed as one of the primary authors on the SLAC papers regarding the spin structure of the proton.


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  • James Blandford

    Well written, it was easy to read and digest! I’m currently a 4th year Masters’ student and this intriguing issue wasn’t touched upon at all!

    What are the current contenders for the last 40%? I’m kind of confused that MRI even works at all with a 40% missing spin