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In particle physics, the strong interaction is the mechanism responsible for the strong nuclear force (also called the strong force, nuclear strong force or colour force), one of the four fundamental interactions of nature, the others being electromagnetism, the weak interaction and gravitation. Effective only at a distance of a femtometre, it is approximately 100 times stronger than electromagnetism, a million times stronger than the weak force interaction and 10 times stronger than gravitation at that range. It ensures the stability of ordinary matter, as it confines the quark elementary particles into hadron particles, such as the proton and neutron, the largest components of the mass of ordinary matter. Furthermore, most of the mass-energy of a common proton or neutron is in the form of the strong force field energy; the individual quarks provide only about 1% of the mass-energy of a proton.

The strong interaction is observable in two areas: on a larger scale (about 1 to 3 femtometers (fm)), it is the force that binds protons and neutrons (nucleons) together to form the nucleus of an atom. On the smaller scale (less than about 0.8 fm, the radius of a nucleon), it is the force (carried by gluons) that holds quarks together to form protons, neutrons, and other hadron particles. The strong force inherently has so high a strength that the energy of an object bound by the strong force (a hadron) is high enough to produce new massive particles. Thus, if hadrons are struck by high-energy particles, they give rise to new hadrons instead of emitting freely moving radiation (gluons). This property of the strong force is called colour confinement, and it prevents the free "emission" of the strong force: instead, in practice, jets of massive particles are observed.

In the context of binding protons and neutrons together to form atoms, the strong interaction is called the nuclear force (or residual strong force). In this case, it is the residuum of the strong interaction between the quarks that make up the protons and neutrons. As such, the residual strong interaction obeys a quite different distance-dependent behavior between nucleons, from when it is acting to bind quarks within nucleons. The binding energy that is partly released on the breakup of a nucleus is related to the residual strong force and is harnessed in nuclear power and fission-type nuclear weapons.

The strong interaction is thought to be mediated by massless particles called gluons, that are exchanged between quarks, antiquarks, and other gluons. Gluons, in turn, are thought to interact with quarks and gluons as all carry a type of charge called "colour charge". Colour charge is analogous to electromagnetic charge, but it comes in three types rather than one (+/- red, +/- green, +/- blue) that results in a different type of force, with different rules of behavior. These rules are detailed in the theory of quantum chromodynamics (QCD), which is the theory of quark-gluon interactions.

Just after the Big Bang, and during the electroweak epoch, the electroweak force separated from the strong force. Although it is expected that a Grand Unified Theory exists to describe this, no such theory has been successfully formulated, and the unification remains an unsolved problem in physics.


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