Smashing Debut for a Subatomic Fireball

By Peterson, Ivars | Science News, October 8, 1988 | Go to article overview

Smashing Debut for a Subatomic Fireball


Peterson, Ivars, Science News


Smashing debut for a subatomic fireball

Amillionth of a second after its creation in the Big Bang, the universe was so hot that neutrons and protons had not yet condensed out of a sea of quarks and gluons. Now researchers have obtained experimental evidence supporting this scenario. They found the evidence for a new state of matter -- a quark-gluon plasma -- in the spray of subatomic particles released by a fireball created in a violent head-on collision between two atomic nuclei.

Protons and neutrons, the two constituents of atomic nuclei, are each thought to consist of three quarks, bound together by force-carrying particles known as gluons. Theoretical calculations predict that at sufficiently high temperatures, protons and neutrons overlap and lose their identities. Collections of these particles would "melt" into a losse agglomeration of quarks and gluons. Although still confined, the loosely bound quarks would be free to roam over distances much larger than the size of a neutron or proton. Then, as the material cooled, quarks would begin to recombine, producing particles such as pions, which consist of pairs of quarks.

To generate the high energies needed to create a quark-gluon plasma, physicits at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics near Geneva, Switzerland, use an accelerator to hurl the nuclei of oxygen atoms, each a bundle of eight protons and eight neutrons, at a gold target. Like a high-speed bullet hitting a tin can, an oxygen nucleus traveling at nearly the speed of light punches a neat hole in a gold nucleus excising about 50 of the gold's 197 neutrons and protons. The oxygen, carrying an energy of 3.2 trillion electron-volts, deposits a significant proportion of this energy into the excised material, creating the atomic equivalent of a fireball.

"You're creating a mini-Big Bang," says Thomas J. Humanic of the University of Pittsburgh. "You're simulating the early universe, a microsecond after creation. …

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