Imaging Shapes of Atomic Nuclei in High-Energy Nuclear Collisions

STAR Collaboration
Nuclear Experiment, Nuclear Experiment (nucl-ex), High Energy Physics - Experiment (hep-ex), High Energy Physics - Phenomenology (hep-ph), Nuclear Theory (nucl-th)
2024-01-12 00:00:00
Atomic nuclei are self-organized, many-body quantum systems bound by strong nuclear forces within femtometer-scale space. These complex systems manifest a diverse set of shapes~, traditionally explored via non-invasive spectroscopic techniques at low energies. Their instantaneous shapes, obscured by long-timescale quantum fluctuations, are considered not directly observable at low energy. We introduce a complementary method, collective flow assisted nuclear shape imaging, to image the nuclear global shape by colliding them at ultrarelativistic speeds and analyzing the collective response of outgoing debris. This technique captures a collision-specific snapshot of the spatial matter distribution in the nuclei, which, through the hydrodynamic expansion, leaves imprints on the particle momentum distribution patterns observed in detectors. We benchmark this method in collisions of ground state Uranium-238 nuclei, known for its elongated, axial-symmetric shape. Our findings, while confirming an overall deformation broadly consistent with prior low-energy experiments, also indicate a small deviation from axial symmetry in the nuclear ground state. This approach marks a new way of imaging nuclei, especially those with uncertain shape characteristics, and refines initial conditions in high-energy nuclear collisions. It tackles the important issue of nuclear structure evolution across various energy scales.
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