Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Little Pop

It ain't quite the Big Bang, but...
While the Large Hadron Collider gets all the attention (it never hurts a physics experiment's street cred when rumors spread that it might create a mini black hole and swallow up the Earth), a lesser-known particle collider has been quietly making soup—quark soup. For the field of experimental particle physics, in which progress has been at a near-standstill since the glory days of the 1970s (yes, the top quark was discovered in an experiment at Fermilab in 1995, but really, everyone knew this last of the six quarks existed), this counts as the most notable achievement in years: a discovery that doesn't merely confirm what theory has long held, but points the way to new revelations about the creation and evolution of the universe.

The reason for that accolade is that quark soup was last seen when the universe was 1 microsecond old, physicists reported at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society. It was created at the 2.4-mile-around Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Lab on New York's Long Island, which smashes together gold ions traveling at nearly the speed of light. The result of the collisions is a tiny region of space so hot—4 trillion degrees Celsius—that protons and neutrons melt into a plasma of their constituent quarks and gluons, as Brookhaven describes here. The soup is 250,000 times hotter than the center of the sun, 40 times hotter than a typical supernova, and the hottest temperature in the universe today.
We note that nothing melted, no black holes were created and the air conditioning in the lab worked fine afterwards.

Interesting, things did not go according to prediction, thus proving that the universe is nowhere near the orderly, precisely designed place that so many people lackign imagination believe it to be.

Indeed, even at its most elemental level, the universe is chaotic and random.

Even more interesting developments, like a possible answer to why the universe even exists in the form it does, have been uncovered from this experiment (short answer: matter and anti-matter should theoretically exist in equal portions, but they obviously don't, since we're here.)

This is Big Science, the kind of science we used to do regularly but have now ceded to the European and Asian scientific community.

Because, you know, tax cuts!