Knotlike structures called skyrmions might help scientists untangle the inner workings of atomic nuclei, a new study suggests.

A skyrmion is a tiny disturbance in a substance, a swirling pattern that, like a knot, is difficult to undo. In the 1960s, nuclear physicist Tony Skyrme suggested that these structures — since named after him — could represent protons and neutrons within a nucleus in theoretical calculations. But despite some initial promise, the idea hit snags. In particular, skyrmion calculations produced misshapen nuclei.

But now researchers have improved their calculations of how protons and neutrons should cluster together in the skyrmion picture. Those results agreed with expectations based on experimental data, the team reports in a study in press at Physical Review Letters.

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