Tomography of Ultra-relativistic Nuclei with Polarized Photon-gluon Collisions

The STAR collaboration
Sci.Adv. 9 (2023) eabq3903, 2023.

A linearly polarized photon can be quantized from the Lorentz-boosted electromagnetic field of a nucleus traveling at ultra-relativistic speed. When two relativistic heavy nuclei pass one another at a distance of a few nuclear radii, the photon from one nucleus may interact through a virtual quark-antiquark pair with gluons from the other nucleus forming a short-lived vector meson (e.g. ${\rho^0}$). In this experiment, the polarization was utilized in diffractive photoproduction to observe a unique spin interference pattern in the angular distribution of ${\rho^0\rightarrow\pi^+\pi^-}$ decays. The observed interference is a result of an overlap of two wave functions at a distance an order of magnitude larger than the ${\rho^0}$ travel distance within its lifetime. The strong-interaction nuclear radii were extracted from these diffractive interactions, and found to be $6.53\pm 0.06$ fm ($^{197} {\rm Au }$) and $7.29\pm 0.08$ fm ($^{238} {\rm U}$), larger than the nuclear charge radii. The observable is demonstrated to be sensitive to the nuclear geometry and quantum interference of non-identical particles.

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