Heavy-ion collision from the ALICE experiment in 2011. (Photo : CERN)
One mystery about the universe solved. Onto the next. After recently announcing that they had discovered the elusive Higgs boson particle, scientists from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN announced that they will now be presenting new, more specific characterization of the quark-gluon plasma that made up the universe right after the Big Bang at the Quark Matter 2012 International Conference.
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"The field of heavy-ion physics is crucial for probing the properties of matter in the primordial universe, one of the key questions of fundamental physics that the LHC and its experiments are designed to address. It illustrates how in addition to the investigation of the recently discovered Higgs-like boson, physicists at the LHC are studying many other important phenomena in both proton-proton and lead-lead collisions," said CERN Director-General Rolf Heuer.
The universe was a different beast in its earliest moments after the Big Bang. Rather than being trapped inside the particles we see today like protons and neutrons, things were hotter and more free-flowing back then. This almost frictionless, "perfect" liquid consisted of quarks, which combine to form hadrons. Hadrons make up protons and neutrons, which in turn make up atomic nuclei. Understanding the strange state of matter would help scientists understand more about how the universe was formed, and how the matter we see today came about.
But this plasma isn't easy to study. It exists at extremely hot temperatures, where even the smallest particles begin breaking down. Extremely calculated collisisions must be made in order to break down the smallest building blocks of matter into their temporal, plasma states. Scientists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory which hosts the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) recently created the highest temperature level ever reached on Earth, seven trillion degrees Fahrenheit, in an effort to study quark-gluon plasma.
"We now have created matter in a unique state, composed of quarks and gluons that have been liberated from inside protons and neutrons," said Steven Vigdor, a RHIC physicist.
The Quark Matter 2012 International Conference where the findings will be presented runs August 13-18 and aims to study "excited matter at the subatomic level to understand how the constituents dynamically arrange themselves to form ordinary matter, and to understand how this organization emerged from the primordial matter created by the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe."
See Yale Physics Professor John Harris explain how the quark-gluon plasma is being studied by the ALICE experiment at CERN: