Scientists break ground heating up primordial plasma

Researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory have been able Researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory have been able to pull apart more modern matter, protons and neutrons, from materials that were in the universe right after the Big Bang. (Sept. 23, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

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Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory believe they are a step closer to deciphering how the hot, soupy liquid that defined the early universe transformed into the ordinary matter that forms our world today.

The latest finding, announced Monday at a conference in Washington, D.C., builds on an earlier discovery about the dawn of the universe. In 2003, the lab became the first to confirm that the earliest matter was a liquid -- not a gas -- by smashing gold atoms together at nearly the speed of light.

Those findings have been confirmed by researchers at the Large Hadron Collider, the 17-mile accelerator along the Franco-Swiss border where the Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle" of physics, was discovered recently. Still, questions about the transformation of primordial matter have remained.

Now BNL researchers have been able to pull apart modern matter to study primordial materials known as quarks and gluons, using the Upton lab's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, a 2.4-mile circular tunnel that accelerates tiny particles using a series of superconducting magnets. The protons and neutrons formed from the blisteringly hot quarks and gluons, which permeated the early universe some 14 billion years ago, immediately after the Big Bang, scientists said.

The collider has registered the hottest temperature ever created on Earth, 7.2 trillion degrees, in researchers' attempt to re-create early conditions of the universe. The local scientists are hoping the latest findings will help them pinpoint when the transformation to modern matter began, as the universe started to cool.

The collider essentially melted the neutrons and protons, allowing scientists to study the properties of the remaining quarks and gluons.

"The critical endpoint, if it exists, occurs at a unique value of temperature and density beyond which . . . [quarks and gluons] and ordinary matter can coexist," said Steven Vigdor, associate lab director for nuclear and particle physics, who leads the collider research program.

Such experiments have had practical benefits. For example, scientists have used some technologies developed for the collider to patent a technique for low-dose cancer treatment.

With Joe Ryan

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