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What is the smallest element of a particle yet discovered?

The discovery of the atom was a huge scientific breakthrough and subsequently even smaller particle components were found inside atoms. What is the smallest element of a particle yet discovered and do scientists believe that there is anything smaller inside these?
Stephen Plant from Greater London (Age 25-34)

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One Response

  1. We now know that atoms are made from a small central nucleus and an electron that orbits around it. The nucleus is in turn built from particles that are smaller still, postively charged protons and neutral neutrons. Finally these neutrons and protons are made from even smaller particles called quarks.

    Both quarks and electrons are currently thought to be fundamental point-like particles. This means that they have no spatial extent and can be thought of as ‘sizeless’. These particles still have a mass though and therefore weigh something. Other kinds of particles have been found that are both fundamental and massless and these are called photons (particles of light) and gluons (particles that glue the quarks together in a proton or neutron).

    Some scientists believe that these particles are not fundamental though but are actually made from tiny vibrating strings. This is called string theory and many people believe this idea has the best chance of understanding fundamental physics at a much deeper level.

    There is now an experiment that is about to start in Geneva called the LHC and hopefully this will help to shed light on whether string theory is correct.

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