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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soundoff (408 Responses)
  1. Uh Huh

    Uh huh, Donna, and I say this with all the respect due to you, shut up.

    February 20, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Cersar

    Doug, you are correct, the author used "its" and "it's" correctly. Maybe Timetraveler had, you know, a drink too many. Poor guy.

    February 20, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Cersar

    No Renee, you can't micro it, S. Fox says it is too small, like a spark.

    February 20, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Alex P

    "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."

    Ms. Landau, Higgs boson cannot "explain gravity." The so-called "Higgs mechanism", one of the predictions of which is the existence of the Higgs boson that experimentalists at LHC are looking for, explains why all elementary particles have _mass_.

    February 20, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • paddy

      alex p. i am working on joel achenbeach's recent book "captured by aliens"...and after reading the chapter on carl sagan wondering how he would have reacted to the current public interest in this topic...long live the "gatekeeper".

      February 20, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
  5. kajakaja

    Elizabeth Landau is hotter by far than their puny gluons

    February 20, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Mark

    @ Scott If Democrats are idiots then Republicans are retarded.

    February 20, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
  7. cheeseburger

    they should accelerate a cheeseburger in LHC i would to see what would happen. very interesting

    February 20, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Cesar

    @ Scott,oooooo, Mark got you there. Hahahahahaah,!!

    February 20, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
  9. myoleman

    " 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 Bible says that God made the universe out of nothing. Yet again science lends support to the Book. Something being pulled out nothing, and they say its real. Of course, people believe when scientists talk, If a Christian says the same thing he gets called all sorts of bad names. Glory to God!

    February 20, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mr C

      Oh, I see, the word "FORCE" is why the comment is connected to the collider... :~|

      February 20, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • ebc

      Reality is far stranger than we can imagine. People who are waiting for humans to develop an experiment for the existence of God are fools. Admit that it's a possibility. And if it is real, do you want to have been wrong all your pathetic and very short (compared to eternity) life here on earth?

      February 20, 2011 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Observer

      The Bible contributed nothing to science. Theoretically, Jesus should have been the smartest person ever, but he never announced anything from the world of science to improve people's lives. Think of how much could have been accomplished if Jesus just said things like "washing your hands is critically important" or that "the earrth is not the center of the universe".

      February 20, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
  10. flycatcher

    Hmmm.... I wonder when some of these great discoveries will be made. Is the collider just running in calibration mode?

    February 20, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Alex

    was there always something? or did something come from nothing?

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

      the egg came first then the chicken..

      February 20, 2011 at 9:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Geoff

      Don't forget the chicken that came before the egg, and the egg before the chicken that made the egg, and the chicken that laid the egg of the chicken that laid the egg of the chicken that laid the egg... etc.

      February 20, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mmmmm

      Chicken first!

      February 20, 2011 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • JoeR

      The egg did in fact come before the chicken. It is not only chickens who lay eggs, in fact many other species were laying eggs long before chickens

      February 21, 2011 at 3:34 am | Report abuse |
  12. Eric

    And knowing what neutrons are made of is important, why? What a humongous waste of money.

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

      Do you know what you owe to particle physics? Everything that uses electricity. With the understanding of each particle comes better technology. Apple recently bought the patent to liquid metal, the creation of which was because of particle physics and trying to understand what particles are made of. Your education was a huge waste of money.

      February 20, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tarzan, on his way to swinging from trees

      No. Actually particle physics is for a bunch of loonies. Its the electrical engineers who did most of the inventing part, and computer scientists who figured out what to do with things. Physicists are the boys who hung out in the labs late at night because they couldn't get a life, couldn't get things to work, and liked playing with tex since that could make equations look pretty. Then they decide to make a virtue out of doing all that. 😉 Consider that every time a physicist needs anything done, how many engineers does he have to call? (the gender based pronouns can and should be switched according to the reader's fancies)

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

      Simple. It is awesome.

      Many discoveries have no immediate practical application, but their potential benefits cannot be ignored. The folly of most individuals is seeing only profit potentials.

      February 21, 2011 at 3:39 am | Report abuse |
  13. MikeB

    The Higgs does not explain gravity, it explains mass.
    Which of course does not explain ignorance.

    February 20, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Rod Venger

    Is the collider chamber big enough for a person? We could use it in place of lethal injection! It'd be just like a big ol phaser!

    February 20, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alan

      Rod, I'm pretty sure the particles would just pass right through the person, but I'm not sure about the lethality. If there's only a few hundred particles at a time, it might be like getting an x-ray overdose. You would get radiation sickness, but not "death by phaser". But I really am just speculating.

      February 20, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. banasy

    But then where did the *egg* come from, Ruffie? And don't say the supermarket, lol!

    February 20, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse |
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