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In creation’s first instant, a “melted” reality



Physicists say they have finally confirmed that the universe was born as a soup of subatomic particles in a “melted” state, which they have recreated in a laboratory. In this fiery fluid, they say, the smallest particles we can find today were broken down into even smaller bits.

Particles streaming out of the blast from one of the first full-energy collisions between gold nuclei at Brookhaven Lab's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. The tracks show the paths taken by thousands of subatomic particles as they pass through a large, 3-D digitial camera. (Courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratory)


The idea that the early universe was like this isn’t new: five years of tests at the laboratory have been backing up the notion, the researchers said.

But only now have they issued what they call a definitive pronouncement of the conclusion, with all four teams of researchers who work on the laboratory’s detectors agreeing. The delay arose because earlier, not all of them concurred on just what was in the stuff they had made in their attempt to recreate the early universe.

The work was done at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, a giant smasher of atomic nuclei located at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.

Crushing the nuclei, scientists say, lets them recreate the conditions long before atoms existed. In these first millionths of a second, they believe, the universe was a soup of particles called quarks and gluons. Today, quarks and gluons exist only as parts of atoms, and are never found free, as they were in that beginning.

Today, when the universe is much colder than it at its fiery birth, quarks conventionally occur in groups of two or three. These groupings, called mesons and baryons, are “glued” together by particles appropriately named gluons. Baryons are a class of particles that include protons and neutrons, the building blocks of a nucleus.

In order to recreate the first instants of time, researchers have to smash these baryons violently enough to release of swarm of unconfined quarks and gluons. This is what the scientists claim to have done.

Two beams consisting of nuclei of gold atoms were bashed together, each nucleus in the beams containing 197 protons and neutrons.

The nuclei clashed with energies of 40 trillion electron volts, the units in which subatomic energies are measured. Of this energy, 25 trillion electron volts were considered “surplus” energy that goes into creating a fireball of new particles after the smashup. In many of these collisions, as many as 10,000 new particles are born.

The outward streaming particles provide clues to the properties of the fireball, the physicists said. To harvest this debris, the detectors must be fast, as the whole process is over in a few trillionths of a trillionth of a second.

The fireball is about 5 trillionths of a millimeter wide and about 100 times denser than an ordinary nucleus.

Unlike normal fireballs, this one looked nothing like a gas, researchers said. For one thing, the potent jets of mesons and protons that would have squirted out out of the fireball, if it were a gas, were absent.

The findings were reported at this week’s April meeting of the American Physical Society in Tampa, Florida, by Michigan State University’s Gary Westfall. They were also presented at a press conference attended by several scientists from the collider.

Brookhaven physicist Samuel Aronson said that having established the quark-gluon-liquid nature of the earliest universe, the laboratory expected to plumb the liquid’s properties, such as its heat capacity and its reaction to shock waves.

The liquid seems to flow very freely—with almost no viscosity, or syrupiness—despite containing huge amounts of material for such a tiny space, the physicists said. This early universe-juice thus approximates an ideal, or “perfect” fluid, the scientists said.

Although the laboratory had previously announced results reporting a possible recreation of the early universe, the researchers hesitated in the past to be definitive about the claim.

This is because there was some debate over whether the liquid truly consisted only of free quarks and gluons, or possibly some mixture of that with more conventional matter.

Confirmation had to wait a more detailed analysis of the patterns of particles bursting out of the fireball, according to William Zajc of Columbia University, New York, a spokesman for one of the research teams.

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