Brookhaven Lab findings eye birth of the universe

Technicians at Brookhaven National Lab stand inside a

Technicians at Brookhaven National Lab stand inside a giant magnet. (Feb. 8, 2010) (Credit: Newsday File)

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Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory announced Monday a breakthrough in which they recreated conditions that they believe occurred a microsecond after the birth of the universe.

Samuel Aronson, director of the lab, said the findings provide a window into "fundamental science . . . about the nature of the building blocks of the universe and how they existed, and the creation of the universe," he said.

In one experiment, scientists used the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) - a 2.4-mile-circumference "atom smasher" - to collide gold ions and create a temperature of 4 trillion degrees Celsius. The high temperatures broke matter down into a liquid soup of tiny subatomic particles called quarks and gluons - the precursors of neutrons and protons - replicating conditions scientists believe occurred just after the Big Bang.

PHOTOS: The Brookhaven National Laboratory

"It's 250,000 times hotter than the center of the sun," said Steve Vigdor, associate director at the lab in Upton, at The American Physical Society meeting in Washington, D.C. That temperature is the hottest ever reached in a laboratory, the lab said, and the RHIC is the first machine capable of colliding ions as heavy as gold.

In another experiment, scientists observed transformations in quarks and gluons that they believe may occur at extreme temperatures when matter transforms.

"A lot of what we observe in today's universe can only be explained by assuming that some very special things went on during that first microsecond after the Big Bang," said Vigdor. "The fact that we exist, that planets exist. All of that is only possible because in the early universe there was a slight imbalance between matter and antimatter."

The findings will be published in the journal Physical Review Letters. The experiments were conducted in 2007 and analyzed over the past several years.

The practical applications of such discoveries are unknown, said Aronson. "It's just knowledge at this point," he said. "Applications, if any, are far off. This is basically trying to understand what makes the universe tick."

Vigdor said the experiment involving temperature will allow scientists "an opportunity to study the stages that matter went through in the early universe."

With Patrick Whittle

PHOTOS: The Brookhaven National Laboratory

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