Vanderbilt Scientists Measure Miniature Big Bang

Physicists at Vanderbilt are part of a research effort into the origin of the universe that’s taking place at a New York laboratory. And they’ve managed to find a way to measure the seemingly impossible – an area smaller than the head of a pin, burning at temperatures hotter than the sun, for one instant.

Photos courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratory

Photos courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratory

The experiment smashes together the cores of atoms of gold at nearly the speed of light, breaking them down into even smaller pieces. Those pieces of atoms momentarily form something called a quark-gluon plasma, or QGP, which burns 250,000 times hotter than the sun.

And Vanderbilt physicists found a way to measure that incredible heat, based on the light it creates. Professor Victoria Greene says the QGP is like a window back in time.

“When the universe was a few microseconds old, it probably existed in a quark-gluon plasma state, and each one of these events is like a miniature Big Bang that we can make in the laboratory, and we hope that someday these experiments will give us clues about the evolution of the universe.”

Scientists hope to use the QGP as a model, to better understand what happened at the moment the universe began. And Greene says it could also explain the strong force that holds atoms together.

Below: Photos, with captions by Professor Greene.

'This shows the paths of the particles streaming out from the collision - this is after the plasma cools and turns into normal matter. In reality, the particles would stream out all the way around, but our detector doesn't wrap around the collision point completely. The ghostly white dots are measured using the pad chambers, which were built at Vanderbilt several years ago.'

‘This shows the paths of the particles streaming out from the collision – this is after the plasma cools and turns into normal matter. In reality, the particles would stream out all the way around, but our detector doesn’t wrap around the collision point completely. The ghostly white dots are measured using the pad chambers, which were built at Vanderbilt several years ago.’

 

 

'Much of what you see is magnets; the guts - detectors and electronics - are buried inside.... The red arrows show the direction of the beam and the orange star shows where the collisions happen.'

‘Much of what you see is magnets; the guts – detectors and electronics – are buried inside…. The red arrows show the direction of the beam and the orange star shows where the collisions happen.’


Greene says the quark-gluon plasma reaches some 4 trillion degrees
Celsius – about 7.2 trillion Fahrenheit. When it cools it turns into ordinary particles – “protons, neutrons, pions, and the kinds of particles you see produced in an accelerator,” she says. And it cools unbelievably quickly:

“The expansion and cooling occurs in about 10 to the -23 seconds. That’s one over 10 with 23 zeroes after it. Definitely a number that’s hard to wrap your brain around.”

Below you can hear Greene discuss experimenting with the QGP.

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