gluon, an elementary particle that mediates, or carries, the strong, or nuclear, force. In quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the quantum field theory of strong interactions, the interaction of quarks (to form protons, neutrons, and other elementary particles) is described in terms of gluons—so called because they "glue" the quarks together. Gluons are massless, travel at the speed of light, and possess a property called color. Analogous to electric charge in charged particles, color is of three varieties, arbitrarily designated as red, blue, and yellow, and—analogous to positive and negative charges—three anticolor varieties. Quarks change their color as they emit and absorb gluons, and the exchange of gluons maintains proper quark color balance.
Unlike other forces, the force between quarks increases as the distance between the quarks increases. Up to distances about the diameter of a proton, quarks behave as if they were free of one another, a condition called asymptotic freedom. As the quarks move farther apart, the gluons that move between them utilize the energy that they draw from the quark's motion to create more gluons—the larger the number of gluons exchanged among quarks, the stronger the binding force. The gluons thus appear to lock the quarks inside the elementary particles, a condition called confinement. Gluons can also bind with one another to form composite particles called glueballs.
According to QCD, only colorless objects may exist in isolation. Therefore, individual gluons and individual quarks cannot exist in nature, and only indirect evidence of their existence can be detected. In 1979, compelling evidence was found when quarks were shown to emit gluons during studies of particle collisions at the German national high-energy physics laboratory in Hamburg.
See J. Diasdebens and S. Costa Ramos, ed., The Physics of Quark-Gluon Plasma (1988); F. J. Yndurain, The Theory of Quark and Gluon Interactions (1993).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.