We visited the last place left in America that’s piecing together the origins of the universe

STAR

In the instant after the Big Bang, the only thing in the universe that existed was a hot plasma soup full of subatomic particles.

But to study that plasma, you don’t have to travel back in time billions of years to the Big Bang itself — just go to Long Island, New York.

Based on a quick (non-scientific) sampling of friends and strangers in a Brooklyn pub, it’s probably safe to say most people don’t know there’s a giant particle collider outside of New York City.

It’s called the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC, pronounced “Rick”), and it’s part of the Department of Energy-sponsored Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. Built in 2000 for $US616 million and now valued at about $US2 billion, it’s job is to make quark-gluon plasma soup — and it’s the only machine in the US that can do it.

Keep scrolling to see how the device works, how it’s helping physicists solve the mysteries of the early universe, and why its future operation may be in danger.

[slideshow]
[slide
permalink=”/#rhic-is-part-of-brookhaven-national-laboratory-bnl-which-sits-in-the-middle-of-the-pine-barrens-on-central-long-island-1″
title=”RHIC is part of Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), which sits in the middle of the pine barrens on central Long Island.”
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[slide
permalink=”/#its-the-only-active-particle-accelerator-of-its-kind-in-the-country-and-at-24-miles-around-its-visible-from-space-2″
title=”It’s the only active particle accelerator of its kind in the country. And at 2.4 miles around, it’s visible from space.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfeadd0895f5048b4658″
source=”Google Maps”
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[slide
permalink=”/#essentially-rhic-is-an-underground-ring-that-shoots-two-beams-of-particles-in-blue-and-yellow-at-each-other-from-opposite-directions-3″
title=”Essentially, RHIC is an underground ring that shoots two beams of particles (in blue and yellow) at each other from opposite directions.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfeadd0895f5048b4659″
source=”RHIC/Flickr”
caption=””
credit_href=””
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[slide
permalink=”/#the-particles-beams-are-made-of-the-cores-of-gold-atoms-4″
title=”The particles beams are made of the cores of gold atoms.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfeadd0895f5048b465a”
source=”Bureau of Labor Statistics”
caption=””
credit_href=””
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[slide
permalink=”/#they-race-around-the-tunnel-at-9999-of-the-speed-of-light-which-creates-harmful-radiation-so-brookhaven-normally-keeps-the-facility-on-lockdown-5″
title=”They race around the tunnel at 99.99% of the speed of light, which creates harmful radiation. So Brookhaven normally keeps the facility on lock down.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfeadd0895f5048b465b”
source=”Kelly Dickerson/Tech Insider”
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#but-engineers-shut-down-the-collider-every-summer-for-maintenance–so-we-got-to-walk-around-this-beige-tube-is-what-zips-the-particles-around-rhic-6″
title=”But engineers shut down the collider every summer for maintenance — so we got to walk around. This beige tube is what zips the particles around RHIC.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfeadd0895f5048b465c”
source=”Kelly Dickerson/Tech Insider”
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#a-small-pipe-at-the-center-carries-the-actual-particle-beam-7″
title=”A small pipe at the center carries the actual particle beam.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfeadd0895f5048b465d”
source=”Kelly Dickerson/Tech Insider”
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#but-the-particles-would-go-straight-without-help-so-there-are-also-superconducting-magnets-inside-to-steer-the-beams-around-the-giant-circle-8″
title=”But the particles would go straight without help. So there are also superconducting magnets inside to steer the beams around the giant circle.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfeadd0895f5048b465e”
source=”RHIC”
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#liquid-helium-surrounds-the-magnets-chilling-them-down-to-minus-452-degrees-fahrenheit–almost-as-cold-as-outer-space-9″
title=”Liquid helium surrounds the magnets, chilling them down to minus-452 degrees Fahrenheit — almost as cold as outer space.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfeadd0895f5048b465f”
source=”Wikimedia Commons”
caption=””
credit_href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superfluid_helium-4#/media/File:Liquid_helium_Rollin_film.jpg”
]
[slide
permalink=”/#at-that-temperature-electricity-passes-through-the-magnets-with-almost-zero-resistance-this-phenomenon–called-superconductivity–can-generate-magnetism-strong-enough-to-steer-high-speed-particles-111111111111111111110″
title=”At that temperature, electricity passes through the magnets with almost zero resistance. This phenomenon — called superconductivity — can generate magnetism strong enough to steer high-speed particles.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfeadd0895f5048b4660″
source=”Wikimedia Commons”
caption=””
credit_href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superconductivity#/media/File:Meissner_effect_p1390048.jpg”
]
[slide
permalink=”/#since-the-magnets-heat-up-and-expand-when-rhic-is-shut-off-then-cool-down-and-contract-when-it-starts-up-again-these-accordion-looking-pieces-protect-the-equipment-111111111111111111111″
title=”Since the magnets heat up and expand when RHIC is shut off, then cool down and contract when it starts up again, these accordion-looking pieces protect the equipment.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfeadd0895f5048b4661″
source=”Kelly Dickerson/Tech Insider”
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#typically-the-gold-particles-speed-around-the-tube-about-80000-times-per-second-they-travel-together-in-bunches-about-one-meter-long-yet-only-about-the-width-of-a-few-strands-of-hairs-111111111111111111112″
title=”Typically, the gold particles speed around the tube about 80,000 times per second. They travel together in bunches about one meter long yet only about the width of a few strands of hairs.”
content=”RAW Embed”
image=””
source=””
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#one-beam-is-marked-with-a-blue-line-and-it-runs-clockwise-the-yellow-line-behind-it-runs-counter-clockwise-111111111111111111113″
title=”One beam is marked with a blue line and it runs clockwise. The yellow line behind it runs counter clockwise.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfeadd0895f5048b4662″
source=”Kelly Dickerson/Tech Insider”
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#physicists-collide-the-gold-ion-beams-inside-two-huge-detectors-one-called-star-weighs-about-1200-tons–about-as-heavy-as-a-fueled-up-space-shuttle-111111111111111114″
title=”Physicists collide the gold-ion beams inside two huge detectors. One called STAR weighs about 1,200 tons — about as heavy as a fuelled-up space shuttle.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfe9dd0895f5048b4652″
source=”RHIC/Flickr”
caption=””
credit_href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/brookhavenlab/12193796936/in/album-72157613690851651/”
]
[slide
permalink=”/#the-other-detector-phenix-is-even-larger-at-about-4000-tons-roughly-570-elephants-worth-of-weight-111111111111111115″
title=”The other detector, PHENIX, is even larger at about 4,000 tons (roughly 570 elephants’ worth of weight).”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfebdd0895f5048b4663″
source=”Brookhaven National Laboratory”
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#both-detectors-are-several-stories-high-heres-physicist-bill-christie-posing-at-the-middle-of-star-111111111111111111116″
title=”Both detectors are several stories high. Here’s physicist Bill Christie posing at the middle of STAR.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfebdd0895f5048b4664″
source=”RHIC/Flickr”
caption=””
credit_href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/brookhavenlab/12193796936/in/album-72157613690851651/”
]
[slide
permalink=”/#when-the-beams-of-gold-ions-collide-in-the-detectors-the-protons-and-neutrons-melt-and-youre-left-with-a-hot-plasma-soup-1111111111111117″
title=”When the beams of gold ions collide in the detectors, the protons and neutrons melt and you’re left with a hot plasma soup.”
content=”RAW Embed”
image=””
source=””
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#the-soup-is-made-of-subatomic-particles-called-quarks-and-gluons-physicists-call-it-quark-gluon-plasma-111111111111111118″
title=”The soup is made of subatomic particles called quarks and gluons. Physicists call it quark-gluon plasma.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfebdd0895f5048b4665″
source=”CERN”
caption=””
credit_href=”http://www.nsf.gov/news/mmg/mmg_disp.jsp?med_id=72874″
]
[slide
permalink=”/#the-same-soup-was-present-immediately-after-the-big-bang-inside-rhic-it-only-exists-for-a-tiny-fraction-of-a-second–00000000000000000000001-second-to-be-precise-1111111111111119″
title=”The same soup was present immediately after the Big Bang. Inside RHIC, it only exists for a tiny fraction of a second — 0.0000000000000000000001 second, to be precise.”
content=”RAW Embed”
image=””
source=””
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#the-early-universe-was-full-of-this-weird-substance-a-nearly-perfect-liquid-in-which-everything-moved-together-as-one-and-almost-without-friction-it-quickly-cooled-into-the-first-atoms-which-then-formed-the-first-stars-and-galaxies-222222222222222222220″
title=”The early universe was full of this weird substance  — a nearly perfect liquid, in which everything moved together as one and almost without friction. It quickly cooled into the first atoms, which then formed the first stars and galaxies.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfebdd0895f5048b4666″
source=”NASA, ESA, and L. Bedin (STScI)”
caption=””
credit_href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hULCfSfkmU”
]
[slide
permalink=”/#inside-rhic-the-soupy-plasma-immediately-reforms-into-particles-which-the-detectors-show-as-patterns-each-line-represents-a-particle-that-splattered-out-of-the-collision-and-went-flying-through-a-detector-22222222222222221″
title=”Inside RHIC, the soupy plasma immediately reforms into particles, which the detectors show as patterns. Each line represents a particle that splattered out of the collision and went flying through a detector.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfebdd0895f5048b4667″
source=”RHIC/Flickr”
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#but-since-the-plasma-exists-for-such-a-short-period-of-time-inside-rhic-its-difficult-to-study-2222222222222222″
title=”But since the plasma exists for such a short period of time inside RHIC, it’s difficult to study.”
content=”RAW Embed”
image=””
source=””
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#so-physicists-piece-the-particle-splatters-back-together-to-explore-what-the-plasma-was-like-its-sort-of-like-reconstructing-an-explosion-with-pieces-of-the-bomb-222222222222222222222223″
title=”So, physicists piece the particle splatters back together to explore what the plasma was like. It’s sort of like reconstructing an explosion with pieces of the bomb.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfebdd0895f5048b4668″
source=”BNL”
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#the-goal-is-to-figure-out-how-exactly-all-the-matter-in-the-universe-sprang-out-of-the-big-bang-22224″
title=”The goal is to figure out how, exactly, all the matter in the universe sprang out of the Big Bang.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfebdd0895f5048b4669″
source=”NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), A. Nota (ESA/STScI), and the Westerlund 2 Science Team”
caption=””
credit_href=”http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2015/12/image/a/format/xlarge_web/”
]
[slide
permalink=”/#that-requires-studying-billions-of-soupy-collisions-from-the-window-in-stars-main-control-room-you-can-see-where-some-of-the-data-is-stored–computers-are-stacked-from-the-floor-to-the-ceiling-222225″
title=”That requires studying billions of soupy collisions. From the window in STAR’s main control room, you can see where some of the data is stored — computers are stacked from the floor to the ceiling.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfebdd0895f5048b466a”
source=”Kelly Dickerson/Tech Insider”
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#the-phenix-detector-collects-a-lot-of-data-too-26″
title=”The PHENIX detector collects a lot of data too.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfebdd0895f5048b466b”
source=”Kelly Dickerson/Tech Insider”
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#both-detectors-feed-their-collision-data-into-the-giant-computing-facility-at-brookhaven-if-physicists-need-to-study-a-particular-collision-data-tape-robots-help-sort-and-retrieve-the-data-2227″
title=”Both detectors feed their collision data into the giant computing facility at Brookhaven. If physicists need to study a particular collision, data-tape robots help sort and retrieve the data.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfebdd0895f5048b466c”
source=”RHIC/Flickr”
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#and-while-rhic-helps-piece-together-the-origins-of-the-universe-its-future-is-a-little-uncertain-2228″
title=”And while RHIC helps piece together the origins of the universe, it’s future is a little uncertain.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfebdd0895f5048b466d”
source=”RHIC”
caption=””
credit_href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/brookhavenlab/3238935315/in/album-72157613690851651/”
]
[slide
permalink=”/#its-funding-is-threatened-2229″
title=”It’s funding is threatened.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cce2cedd0895eb048b46a7″
source=”RHIC”
caption=””
credit_href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffersonlab/12599283233/”
]
[slide
permalink=”/#despite-that-threat-rhic-is-still-highly-productive-and-attracts-more-than-1000-researchers-a-year-3333330″
title=”Despite that threat, RHIC is still highly productive and attracts more than 1,000 researchers a year.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfebdd0895f5048b466f”
source=”Flickr/RHIC”
caption=””
credit_href=””
]
[slide
permalink=”/#those-scientists-are-learning-more-about-the-early-universe-than-ever-before-using-rhic-its-also-helping-solve-the-spin-crisis-in-physics–a-mystery-surrounding-a-fundamental-property-of-particles-called-spin-33333333333331″
title=”Those scientists are learning more about the early universe than ever before using RHIC. It’s also helping solve the ‘spin crisis’ in physics — a mystery surrounding a fundamental property of particles called spin.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfebdd0895f5048b4670″
source=”Wikimedia Commons”
caption=””
credit_href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spin-%C2%BD#/media/File:Spin_half_angular_momentum.svg”
]
[slide
permalink=”/#rhic-is-the-only-active-particle-collider-making-quark-gluon-plasma-in-the-us-if-we-shut-it-down-well-lose-a-unique-window-into-the-early-universe-3332″
title=”RHIC is the only active particle collider making quark-gluon plasma in the US. If we shut it down, we’ll lose a unique window into the early universe.”
content=””
image=”http://static.businessinsider.com/image/55cccfebdd0895f5048b4671″
source=”Flickr/RHIC”
caption=””
credit_href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/brookhavenlab/4706458113/in/album-72157613690851651/”
]
[/slideshow]