The early evolution of our universe can be recreated at a New York lab.
Although scientists don’t really know what happened before the Big Bang, they have a pretty good idea of what the universe looked like immediately after. Supporting their theory are experiments at Brookhaven National Lab in Upton, New York, where insanely hot plasmas are created to mimic the beginning of the universe:
Milliseconds after the Big Bang, our universe was unbelievably hot. The temperature was so sweltering that the hottest part of our solar system — the center of the sun — doesn’t even compare. The sun’s core is 28,260,032 degrees Fahrenheit. Our infant universe was 250 thousands times hotter, which is around 7 trillion degrees Fahrenheit.
With that kind of heat, comes incredible energy. Energy levels so high that they melt matter down to its most fundamental components — subatomic particles called quarks and gluons.
The freely-floating quarks and gluons make up a plasma, which is the most abundant state of matter in the universe. One example of a plasma we see everyday is the sun. This quark-gluon plasma is what scientists think permeated the universe immediately after the Big Bang. But this strange state of matter can also be created right here on Earth — in a particle accelerator.
Scientists at Brookhaven National Lab (BNL) first created a quark-gluon plasma in February 2010 by accelerating gold (or sometimes lead) atoms and protons to relativistic speeds within the lab’s Relativistically Heavy Ion Collider, like so:
When the gold atoms and protons smash into each other, they break apart into their fundamental components. The left overs consist of a cloud of residual subatomic particles that expands and cools.
“When the collision occurs, all the protons and neutrons melt so all that you have left are the quarks and gluons,” BNL physicist Paul Sorensen explains in a Science Friday video titled “How to Make Quark Soup.”
“And that thing [the cloud] is expanding rapidly, and as it expands it starts to cool down and as it cools down it goes through the same phase transition that occurred in the early universe,” Psaltis said.
As the plasma cools even further, the quarks and gluons begin to combine and form protons and neutrons — the same types of protons and neutrons that comprise everything we see around us including our bodies and brains.
Although Brookhaven has an impressive collection of powerful detectors that capture snap shots of the collisions, physicists like Sorensen are still trying to figure out why the plasma forms in the first place.
“What’s important about this is that we can tell you a lot about what we created but we still don’t really have a good idea of why,” he says. And so to get a better idea, BNL scientists are preparing to test different sized atoms at different temperatures. By studying what happens under different conditions, scientists can better understand the overall structure of matter throughout the universe.
For more detail on how scientists are cooking up quark-gluon plasmas watch the Science Friday video below
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