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Like the Universe's tiniest matryoshka dolls, atoms are typically modelled as particles within particles – a nuclei built of protons and neutrons, which in turn contain trios of fundamental particles called quarks.

As convenient as this simple metaphor might be, the quantum engine operating within these subatomic particles is an incomprehensible ledger of quantum economics: quarks and antiquarks adding up and cancelling out, but never balancing.

In the early 1990s, physicists smashed protons apart in order to put some numbers to this buzzing hive of quark activity, only to find the balance they expected was strangely askew.

Naturally, since the results left plenty of room for doubt, a double-check was in order.

Subsequent experiments at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in the US suggested something odd was going on when the momentum of the particles was cranked right up to the brink of what the detectors could measure.

So researchers set about a new experiment. Dubbed SeaQuest, its hodgepodge mix of old detectors and blinking scintillators was designed to get to the bottom of the quarks sloshing around inside protons with greater precision than ever.

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