Early universe revealed at 4 trillion degrees
The Large Hadron Collider smashes matter at unprecedented speeds and energies. And it creates heat you can't even imagine.
February 20th, 2011
05:52 PM ET

Early universe revealed at 4 trillion degrees

You've probably heard about the $10 billion particle-smashing machine underneath the border between France and Switzerland. To refresh, it's called the Large Hadron Collider, and its mission is to collide matter at unprecedented speeds and energies to figure out what our universe is made of and how it came to be.

In Washington on Sunday, I sat down with Yves Schutz of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Schutz is a scientist with ALICE, an experiment designed to examine what the universe was like immediately after it was formed in the Big Bang. He had spoken about the experiment at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting.

Back in November, ALICE announced its latest results about what matter looked like in that primordial form.

The scientists have come to their current understanding of this early matter by heating particles up to some 4 trillion degrees, perhaps the highest temperature ever achieved in a laboratory setting, but not as hot as it will get eventually for this experiment, Schutz said. This is so hot - about 200,000 times hotter than the core of the sun - that it doesn't really matter if you're talking about Celsius or Fahrenheit anymore, Schutz said.

When water heats up above a mere 212 degrees Fahrenheit, it turns into a gas. But when you heat up this nuclear matter to 4 trillion, it's a liquid, which is a medium of strongly interacting particles. At the same time, while water is viscous - it sticks to surfaces - this primordial soup has nearly no viscosity whatsoever, a phenomenon that has been observed in a similar way in liquid helium.

Like any hot body of matter, it gives off electromagnetic radiation. And it's not visible to the naked eye because (a) it's too small and (b) it's not in the spectrum of visible light.

Also,  scientists are inferring these properties of the early universe in the same way that an archaeologist has to figure out the shape of an ancient vase by looking at the remaining pieces. Scientists can only see the consequences of this quark-gluon plasma and must draw conclusions from the ordinary matter that it becomes.

The nuclear matter used here is made of quarks and gluons, which are some of the fundamental building blocks of matter. The heat comes from the collision of particles in the accelerator - but those aren't what become this quark-gluon plasma. In fact, the quarks and gluons get pulled out of pure empty space. Yes, that's really confusing and impossible to imagine, but it's real.

The particle accelerator is restarting after a winter hiatus and will continue to run at 7 TeV in 2011 and 2012, said Felicitas Pauss, head of International Relations at CERN. Then, it will shut down for more than a year to prepare for particle smashing at the unprecedented energy of 14 TeV.

A lot of attention has been paid in the popular science world to the quest for finding a particle called the Higgs boson, which would explain gravity, among other things. But the scientists at the conference said they'd be happier if it's not found.

"There's a host of other things that could be out there," said Thomas LeCompte, physicist at Argonne National Laboratory. The Higgs is the "simplest and elegant" solution to many problems with scientist's current notions of how the world works, but there's no telling what the Large Hadron Collider will find.

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Filed under: Science
soundoff (408 Responses)
  1. msbread

    i agree with the last commentor

    February 22, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Report abuse |
  2. msbread

    If God doesn't give use the knowledge we will never understand his works anyway. Everything he created is amazing, i think my first question to him will be what made him think of all the things he created for us to wonder about. it is all interesting.

    February 23, 2011 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
  3. Dave

    You people realize you just got trolled by 4channers right?

    March 10, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
  4. mininabonita

    I think this could be the explanation for why we have melting glaciers and all of the other environmental puzzlers that we have going on...I am pretty sure God did not intend for His earth to have giant machines below the surface of the earth creating extreme temperatures.. just a thought

    September 23, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Vek

    What!!? 4 trillion degrees! Whatever you do, please don't blow up the earth.

    September 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  6. illmatar

    Paul, first Obama is a Christian. Second you did read that this collider is in Europe right? To quote "underneath the border between France and Switzerland." Not our project. Last, they have been working on this for much longer than our current president has been in office.

    If the end is coming it's because people are being blinded by hate. Whether or not God is involved hate destroys everything.

    February 21, 2011 at 5:46 am | Report abuse |
  7. Scott

    It is in Europe, and was built by CERN, we had nothing to do with funding it.

    February 21, 2011 at 5:51 am | Report abuse |
  8. Hillbilly

    Lissin to Paul cuz heez da smartis pursin i evur hurd spoke on dis hole forim !!!

    February 21, 2011 at 5:52 am | Report abuse |
  9. JoeyE

    you're funny! it has nothing to do with Obama this time.. That experiment IS in Europe.. not in America.. Pls read it carefully before you spewed it!

    February 21, 2011 at 5:52 am | Report abuse |
  10. Jason

    Dude, Seriously? I dislike President Obama just as much as the next person, but now he's the anti christ? I think the thing Ive finally figured out is that no matter who sits in that office, everything will be their fault, period.

    February 21, 2011 at 6:04 am | Report abuse |
  11. Ronnie Reagan

    Everyone except for HillBilly just got owned.

    February 21, 2011 at 6:21 am | Report abuse |
  12. Tomas

    Conspiratory and funny at best, but mostly sad. Poul, doing experiements like these, will open doors to wealth and knowledge for ALL humans, just like the Apollo projects.
    You are sadly infested with the rightwing Ubermench kind of mindset....Americans are worth the samme as everybody else and Mr. Obama is an angel compared to Buch & Co. They are the ones who created thsi deficit...by illegal wars and decrease in personal freedom inside the US.
    An idea could be not to watch too much FOX.

    February 21, 2011 at 6:29 am | Report abuse |
  13. chuckmartel

    Is this paul character really this deranged and dumb or is this a joke? Science is part of a caliphate plot? The muslim world is using physics as a takeover ploy? This is not even a US project, is located in Switzerland, and Obama has nothing to do with it.

    February 21, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Meraqua

    I'm suddenly wondering how hard it would be to create a gatekeeper mechanism that forces people to read recent comments before they're allowed to post.

    February 21, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
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