February 10, 2000
Particle Physicists Getting Closer to the Bang That Started It All
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By JAMES GLANZ
cientists in Geneva have re-created a primordial form of matter that
physicists believe last existed in
abundance when the universe was an
exploding fireball only a fraction of a
The new material is a highly compressed gas of the particles called
quarks and gluons, the building
blocks of ordinary particles like the
protons and neutrons within all the
atoms in the universe today. In scientific importance, the long-sought
achievement might be compared to
the first splitting of the atom to reveal its individual parts.
The achievement will be announced today at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory
where the work was carried out. The
finding moves experimental physics
closer than it has ever been to the
presumed moment at which the universe came into being and could help
cosmologists better understand the
driving forces behind the primordial
explosion itself. The matter's existence confirms one of the most abstruse of all predictions by theoretical particle physicists.
Quarks, and the gluons that powerfully bind them, are normally joined
to form protons and neutrons and
cannot be shaken loose individually
no matter how hard pairs of the
ordinary particles are smashed together. To create the new material,
the scientists have, in effect, compressed and heated a ball of protons
and neutrons so that they melted into
their constituent quarks and gluons,
which then floated freely in a laboratory for the first time.
The compression was achieved by
smashing together entire lead nuclei
containing hundreds of protons and
neutrons each, rather than mere
pairs of them.
"It does indicate that a new state
of matter is created," said Dr. Johanna Stachel, a physicist at the University of Heidelberg in Germany
who is the spokeswoman for one of
the multinational collaborations that
operates a large particle detector,
called NA45, at the Geneva laboratory. "This new state we think the
universe was in until about 10 microseconds after the Big Bang, and then
crystallized into the particles as we
know them now."
The Big Bang is the colossal explosion in which most cosmologists believe the universe was born, some 15
billion years ago. A microsecond is a
millionth of a second.
The laboratory's experiment, said
Dr. Michael Turner, a cosmologist at
the University of Chicago, "helps
take us back to when the universe
was a soup of the most fundamental
particles we know."
Because of the tight connection to
cosmology, said Dr. Edward Shuryak, a physicist at the State University of New York in Stony Brook, the
Geneva laboratory's achievement is
being called the "Little Bang."
Known more technically as
"quark-gluon matter," the material
is also a boon for theoretical physicists, since their theory of strong
particle interactions, called quantum chromodynamics, had predicted
that the bizarre state should exist.
Physicists know of six different
types of quarks, which go by the
somewhat whimsical designations
up, down, charm, strange, top and
bottom. Pairs and threesomes of
quarks bind together to make up
ordinary particles of matter. Protons, for example, consist primarily
of two up quarks and one down
quark, while the less common particles called kaons consist of a strange
quark and either an up or a down.
Oddly, the strength with which
gluons bind quarks turns out to be
weak when the quarks are close together and grows powerful when
they are distant from each other, as
if they were connected by elastic.
But Dr. Shuryak and others came
to the conclusion that quarks could
roam free if enough protons and neutrons could be heated to a temperature about 100,000 times higher than
the center of the sun and compressed
to a density roughly 10 times that of
an ordinary atomic nucleus. Small
clouds of quarks effectively screen
one another from the gluon force of
more distant quarks, cutting the
The equations of quantum chromodynamics are so complex that the
theoretical properties of quark-gluon
matter can be explored only on the
world's largest computers.
To test whether this state of matter can exist in reality, the scientists
in Geneva used their Super Proton
Synchrotron to accelerate lead nuclei to an energy of 33 trillion electron volts. Traveling at nearly the
speed of light, those nuclei were
smashed into a lead foil, producing
hot, dense matter in the collisions.
After a fleeting existence, the
quark-gluon matter should then cool
and condense into ordinary matter
and explode in a hail of thousands of
ordinary particles. Seven different
particle detectors examined the residue of millions of lead collisions for
evidence that the quark-gluon matter had been created.
"It is sort of a criminal court procedure, where you have proof by
circumstantial evidence," said Dr.
Reinhard Stock, a physicist at the
University of Frankfurt who is the
spokesman for a collaboration centered on a detector called NA49.
The fingerprints of the deed are
clear, said Dr. Stock. They include
detection of many more particles
that contain strange quarks than an
ordinary smash-up would produce,
and fewer particles containing
charm quarks -- the indications seen
by the Geneva lab's detectors.
"We have opened the door," said
Dr. Claude Détraz, the laboratory's
director of research, calling the new
results "compelling evidence that we
have created a new state of matter in
which quarks are 'deconfined.' "
Cosmologists believe that much of
the character of the universe, and
perhaps the fury of the Big Bang
explosion itself, was determined by a
series of so-called phase transitions
like the coalescence of ordinary matter from the quark-gluon plasma.
"This is really a concrete illustration of how cosmologists can benefit
from accelerators, which can recreate the conditions that existed
during the earliest moments of the
universe," said Dr. Turner of the
University of Chicago.
Though quark-gluon matter is
rare, physicists theorize that small
amounts of it may be generated
when energetic particles from space
called cosmic rays crash into planetary bodies like Earth.
The announcement sets the stage
for much more powerful experiments, expected to begin this spring,
using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at the federal Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y.
Those experiments will initially
collide gold nuclei with 10 times higher energy than CERN has mustered,
said Dr. Thomas Ludlam, a physicist
who is an administrator of the program at Brookhaven. The experiments should produce an even more
exotic entity called a quark-gluon
plasma and allow for much more
intensive study of the substances.
"It's as if you're trying to discover
steam and you can make a few little
puffs of steam," he added. "But with
a better pressure cooker you have
enough time to stick a thermometer
in and discover the thermodynamic
properties of steam."