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.
RHIC is part of Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), which sits in the middle of the pine barrens on central Long Island.
It's the only active particle accelerator of its kind in the country. And at 2.4 miles around, it's visible from space.
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.
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.
But the particles would go straight without help. So there are also superconducting magnets inside to steer the beams around the giant circle.
Liquid helium surrounds the magnets, chilling them down to minus-452 degrees Fahrenheit -- almost as cold as outer space.
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.
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.
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.
One beam is marked with a blue line and it runs clockwise. The yellow line behind it runs counter clockwise.
The other detector, PHENIX, is even larger at about 4,000 tons (roughly 570 elephants' worth of weight).
When the beams of gold ions collide in the detectors, the protons and neutrons melt and you're left with a hot plasma soup.
The soup is made of subatomic particles called quarks and gluons. Physicists call it quark-gluon plasma.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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