Origins Of The Universe: Playing With Quarks and Gluons

Using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), scientists are developing a more complete understanding of the quarks and gluons that make up the universes ancient primordial soup.

Understanding what happened in the microseconds after the Big Bang is crucial to knowing how and why the universe looks and behaves as it does today. That’s why scientists look to re-create the conditions of the early universe in the laboratory. It’s a chance for scientists to explore the very fundamental properties of matter.


A graphical impression of The Big Bang. Image credit: Fotolia

Much like steam condenses to water and eventually freezes, the first matter after the big bang also went through several phases, eventually becoming the first recognizable matter in the universe – a primordial hot soup of quarks and gluons. The whole process occurred within fractions of a second and there are still phases of the process that scientists don’t understand. It’s likely that filling in the missing pieces could lead to breakthroughs in dark matter, dark energy and matter/ antimatter.

At the RHIC, scientists collide ions at tremendous speeds freeing the quarks and gluons, in an explosion similar to that of the Big Bang. Ordinary matter melts away into it’s fundamental constituents, with temperatures reaching more than 100,000 times hotter than the center of the sun – creating a sort of ancient French onion primordial soup.

“RHIC researchers are able to see the forms of matter that come from the quarks and gluons behaving in a variety of conditions,” said physicist Paul Sorensen at the RHIC. “For example, think of the heavy ion as an onion, but after reacting in these conditions, the onion becomes a bowl of French onion soup.”

The RHIC was initially the only machine in the world capable of re-creating the environmental conditions and temperature adjustments in which matter can rapidly change forms. However, just recently scientists announced the first recreation of the universes primordial soup at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.

The collisions at the LHC reached record-high energies of 5.02 TeV. Scientists were able to measure the precise characteristics of the quark-gluon plasma and to determine how it flows. Results showed that the LHC plasma acts more like a liquid than a gas, obeying the laws of hydrodynamics.

The findings at the RHIC and LHC have taught us a lot about what we are made of and where we came from. And although we know more about the fundamental particles of the universe then ever, we look forward in anticipation to learning “what matters” next.

Materials provided by Department of Energy, Office of Science.

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