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By Kenneth Chang
Feb. 9 A series of atom-smashing experiments in Switzerland may have created the same form of matter that filled the universe for the first moment of its existence.
In the first 1/100,000th of a second after the Big Bang that give birth to the universe, temperatures were so hot that fundamental particles known as quarks floated around individually.
A Search for Primordial Matter
If the Big Bang theory is correct, if the universe started the way which we believe it did, then at some stage these quarks must have been floating around in a kind of soup before they got caged inside other particles, says Neil Calder, spokesman for CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, located outside Geneva. All around the world physicists have been trying to recreate this soup, and this we have now cooked up at CERN.
Scientists at CERN say a series of experiments slamming iron ions together provide strong evidence that they have recreated this primordial state of matter.
Others, such as Columbia University physicist Bill Zajc, say the CERN data is inconclusive. In scientificspeak, Zajc says, I think theyve exceeded the bounds of the evidence by a considerable margin.
While Zajc says, I believe they have broad hints for unusual properties in the matter theyve created, he adds, Not everything you dont understand is a discovery.
Even if confirmed by future experiments, the seven CERN experiments, which began in 1994, wont offer any immediate practical benefits. But they would be a breakthrough for scientists trying to go back to study the earliest moments of the creation of the universe, enabling them to take a step in studying particles and forces as yet unobserved.
Looking Farther Inside
An atom consists of a cloud of electrons surrounding a nucleus of protons and neutrons. Each proton and neutron, in turn, consists of three smaller quarks bound together by other particles known as gluons.
Think of the quarks as little balls, and the gluons as rubber bands holding them tightly together.
Scientists have deduced the existence of quarks through numerous experiments, but have never seen them directly.
In the CERN experiments, a beam of lead ions was slammed into stationary targets, creating temperatures hotter than 2 trillion degrees Fahrenheit, or more than 100,000 times hotter than the center of the sun.
The violent collisions created matter so hot and dense that the gluon bindings loosened, allowing individual quarks to swim free for a moment.
Next Experiments in New York
More conclusive evidence of this state of matter, called a quark-gluon plasma will await the new Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory on New Yorks Long Island, set to begin collecting data this summer with collisions 10 times more energetic.
Were creating such tremendous heat and pressure that were melting those protons and neutrons in essence, and those particles inside are able to come outside for a brief time, comments Brookhaven physicist Tim Hallman. Its sort of similar to boiling water and making steam.
Scientists have long expected to find this super-hot primordial soup as part of the theory that the universe was created in a gigantic explosion.
But 1/100,000th of a second after the Big Bang, matter cooled enough for the gluons to pull the quarks together into protons and neutrons, eliminating free quarks from the universe.
On the Threshhold of Discovery
Up till now, scientists accelerators were too weak to break apart the quarks.
James Gillies, a CERN physicist, told The Associated Press that CERNs accelerators had just enough energy to be able to create the stuff, but just enough isnt enough to be able to study its properties in great detail.
Its very good news for the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, because they will be able to make it very easily and study it in great detail, Gillies said.
He noted that many of the scientists who have been working at CERN will also work at Brookhaven and return to Geneva in 2005 when CERN will have an even more powerful accelerator.
Although some have expressed concerns that recreating the Big Bang could have cataclysmic side effects such as the creation of matter-swallowing black holes most physicists say there is no danger. Such high-energy collisions, they say, occur frequently in nature, including high-energy cosmic rays slamming into the moon and the Earths atmosphere, without any world-ending consequences.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
All around the world physicists have been trying to recreate this soup, and this we have now cooked up at CERN.
Neil Calder, European Laboratory for Particle Physics
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