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. thes33k3r

    Hooray for science!

    February 20, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Greg

    4 trillion degrees is the same temperature of the center of a Hot Pocket after you leave it in the microwave for too long.

    February 20, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • TheMan3456

      Ha! You beat me to it, Greg! I was thinking the EXACT same thing. How there hasn't been a "McDonald's coffee-esque" lawsuit against Hot Pockets is beyond me... 🙂

      February 20, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • megatron


      February 20, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • katie

      hahahahaha i love you.

      February 20, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Waldo

    JBL is right. The article gets an A, because: Tells who, what, when, where. It has good facts and research and like JBL said," its" and " it's" are not related to science reporting. Thank you, JBL, sorry Timetraveler.

    February 20, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      Whilst the CONTENT is not exceptional, there are journals for that. The audience here on CNN require simpler explanations.
      I'll not give the article an A.
      Because, an error was made, initially calling trillions billions, but subsequently corrected, I'll give it an A+.

      February 20, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jack W

      One mistake – the Higgs Boson explains the origin of mass, not gravity (i.e. weight),

      February 20, 2011 at 11:29 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Dennis

    The real question at hand is.. will it blend?

    February 20, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Renee

      A better question is " Is it a good idea to microwave this?"

      February 20, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      No, the question is:
      Will it make a good mixer with scotch?
      I'll let you know.

      February 20, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
  5. startrekmac

    I would like to know what material they used to build this "Hadron Collider" that can withstand 4 trillion degrees.
    Seems like the entire machine would instantly vaporize. Any one know the answer?

    February 20, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marina

      haha! Good Point.
      Isn't it weird how it's all connected with 2012 in some way?

      February 20, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Robert

      The temperatures they are referring to occur in a tiny volume, much less than a single skin cell. The actual overall energy in the collision is less than one millionth the total energy of a 1 watt light bulb that is one for one second.

      February 20, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • S. Fox

      It's because it's only a few atoms there that are that hot. It's such a tiny amount, that the amount of total heat it has is almost nothing.

      Think about like a spark that comes off from welding or grinding metal. That little piece of metal is extremely hot, near 1000 degrees. But it's so small that there's very little total heat with it – it could land on your arm and you would barely feel it. Now think about if you had that same temperature for something very large, like a 1000-degree car... not only would that instantly kill you, but it would melt and set everything around it on fire.

      The amount of heat something has depends on both its size and temperature.

      February 20, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mr. D

      Magnetic energy

      February 20, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      Magnetic containment of a sub-microscopic amount of matter in a vacuum, which does not transmit heat very well.
      Hence, why a thermos works.

      February 20, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Waldo

    Will what bend.

    February 20, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Donna in Carolina

    There go them scientists, playing God again. Before you know it they'll be trying to go back in time to prove that earth was one big land mass. There is a reason God created all these different countyies– to divide us people and keep the good from the bad. IF He's have know that Mexico was what it is today He'd of made the Gulf part of the Ocean straight through. Six thousand, seven hundred eight years and 7 days (God never rests) God created light and then earth and Adam and Eve, who were white. Scientists and Hussien Obama with there Godless foolishness are going to detsroy the world with all there ivy leagued books and fancy educations. Sarah Palin didn't need know ivy education and she'll save America. The rest of the world can destroy themselves.

    February 20, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Report abuse |

      so your saying god hates mexicans? and shoulda flushed the toilet on them? that's real nice.. i guess in your heaven only white people are allowed?

      February 20, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • jazzdrums

      Okay, that must've been a joke, given all the horrendous spelling and obvious xenophobia on display. Please tell me that was a joke. Tell me they really don't make 'em that stupid. Good one, Donna. You got me there ...

      February 20, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sean

      *giggle* Please, the day a non-scientist can describe an experiment that can test for the presence of God in a verifiable and repeatable manner then I'll consider the God postulate. That's right I just demoted it from a hypothesis. Of course Donna ha no idea what those big words mean.

      By the way scientists don't play God. If it wasn't for science you would still be hunting animals for their skins for clothing. You would still be living hand to mouth from what you could catch and kill. Your big fancy car simply wouldn't exist, you wouldn't be able to drive down to CostCo to pick up the economy size tub of lard. In fact, you wouldn't have the book you so highly regard (the Bible) if it wasn't for science. It still would be oral verse, mutating and changing with each passing generation until someone finally wrote it down. Oh wait, that already happened.

      In short, what you so readily dismiss has created the world in which you live allowing you to choose to dismiss the obvious in favor of just another run of the mill mythology.

      February 20, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • KumQuat

      God was going to create hell, but then He realized He didn't have to because He had already created Oklahoma.

      February 20, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • weak sauce

      nah, that was total "tongue in cheek".

      February 20, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • @BamBam

      Donna you're either a troller or ... well simply an idiot.

      February 20, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • m

      Unfortunately there are too many people like donna in the carolina’s (lower case on purpose). I have lived in this state most of my life but originally from a civilized part of the country. There are many great people here but the ignorance of longtime residence of the natives is scary. This part of the country and south in general is ignorant to real science. What happens at CERN will have immense, practical and probably life saving consequences as it goes from science to modern life.

      A better understanding of the origins of the universe and life will be what helps save the world, not destroy it. However, all of the “gawd” mongers around here think palin, gawd & living in the stone age are the only solutions. They somehow seem to forget that technology is what gave them this forum to spout their “science is the work of the devil” speeches. I for one look forward to the improvement of mankind through projects like CERN. I can’t wait for more to be reported on in the future.

      February 20, 2011 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Max

      I really hope this was a joke.

      February 20, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bensky

      Incredibly naive, but you have every right to believe such rubbish.

      February 20, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • brt

      I feel like I just watched a uniform fart an atomic explosion.

      February 20, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • beelzebubba

      Donna, I bet I kin guess yer denomination... the one that started the whole civil war by claiming that slavery is god's will. If I get to heaven and you're there, I'm gonna request a refund.

      February 21, 2011 at 12:04 am | Report abuse |
    • Tim

      I love how none of you realized she's joking... I mean the sarah palin support line was indication enough, who would actually believe sarah palin will save the USA?

      February 21, 2011 at 2:02 am | Report abuse |
  8. Waldo

    Dennis hi will what bend. Do you work in a science lab.

    February 20, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  9. banasy

    There goes the neighboorhood! Someone let Donna in!

    February 20, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Rupert

    RuffNutt, no I think she means God is mad at the drug gangs. Haven't you heard the news. They are killing every weak.

    February 20, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |

      god doesn't hate anyone... if anything satan is on vacation down there right now..

      February 20, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
  11. puppo

    If we can explain gravity it can then be used as a means of propulsion. More accurately transport. Amplifying the gravity of an object to draw a craft toward it. Or so they say anyway.

    February 20, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Joe

    Elizabeth, not to be pedantic, but in paragraph 5 I think you might have meant to say plasma, rather than liquid:

    "But when you heat up this nuclear matter to 4 trillion, it's a liquid, which is a medium of strongly interacting particles."

    February 20, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ben

      If you are going to correct someone, do it right. At those temperatures, water is a superfluid.

      February 20, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • me

      supercritical fluid, actually

      February 20, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Simon

      In this particular instance, "liquid" was being used as an adjective. C'mon people, big picture here.

      February 20, 2011 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      Joe, she's goobering it down quite well. I initially took exception to the reference, but considered such plasma and tried to give a better explanation. I surrendered to her analogy. It wurks for Goober, ya know?

      February 20, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Cesar

    As per Robert's explanation, ok. I understand better. He knows his science; must be a science teacher or something. Thanks Robert.

    February 20, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  14. PhilWrob

    Quarks and Gluons pulled out of empty space??...either the space isn't really empty or these particles are coming from another dimension....another and parallel universe????

    February 20, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Report abuse |


      February 20, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • dtchemist

      If you've ever hear of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, it says that you can't know a particle's velocity and it's position simultaneously because measuring one would change the other, hence the built in uncertainty. Another aspect of that principle is a similar relationship with time and energy. Empty space can spontaneously produce particles with a given energy, but the higher the energy, the shorter the time they can exist. These "virtual" particles pop in and out of existence all the time in "empty" space.

      February 20, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      Phil, quantum dynamics 101...
      It doesn't HAVE to make sense at the macro scale, but THIS is a different scale.

      February 20, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mmmmm

      I can't believe you all are falling for this crappy deception. As usual arrogant science accompany by their maniacal laugh are tearing at the very fabric of creation searching for the god particle...with intent to capture it. they are not interested in the beginning of the world. They are trying to discover the space where the seen meets the unseen, where disorder and order meets. The place where the finger of God meets the finger of
      adam. Your hateful arrogance are duly noted by Heaven and will not be permitted to stand.

      February 20, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Robert

      Well, you're correct the space isn't actually that empty. But the simple answer here comes from a familiar equation: E=mc2. This equation says that matter and energy are equivalent, and interchangeable. So given enough energy (from the LHC collisions for instance) matter can be spontaneously created from the vacuum. But the mass must be very low for the equation to work (c2 is about 90,000,000,000,000,000 m2/s2).

      February 20, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mmmmm

      Based on current scientific principles Adam and Eve are not white for the original parents had to contained the genetic material of every nation and race. White gene is recessive not dominate so at least one of the two parent had to be black. It is also probable that both parents can be black. White recessive gene ability to make a dark race of people is improbable. I believe today's humanity are descendents of Noah's and his household.

      February 20, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mmmmm

      Robert the equation is a principle not a standard...it's not even a a size of a grain of sand in the grand scheme of things.

      February 20, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Robert

      A grain of sand would require the energy equivalent of a 1 megaton bomb to be spontaneously created.

      February 21, 2011 at 8:17 am | Report abuse |
  15. Scratchy


    ... did you drop out of grade school?
    ... do you fail at life?
    ... don't you realize that modern physics is the basis of modern chemistry and modern electronics, and therefore modern technology?
    ... don't you go back to lighting your own gas on fire and leave the smart folks to talk about this?

    February 20, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scratchy

      ... did my post end up down here instead of as a threaded reply to Ichi, even after clicking Reply? Oh well.

      February 20, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
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