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. Funkymonkey1

    Still not as hot as satan's sphincter. But they're getting close.

    February 20, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tarzan, on his way to swinging from trees

      What you been doing hanging out there boy?

      February 20, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Just some guy

    The possibilties are endless. From answering questions about the very substance of the universe, to why someone who hates science is on a computer. The chicken came before the chicken egg. Eggs in general came before the chicken. And nobody can explain gravity – yet. They can measure it coutless ways, but not explain it.

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

      Actually, that's one of the few things for which there's an explanation. Gravity is dependent on mass, and responsible for the universe to exist. It's called "The Law" of Gravity, not the "theory", since it's been established firmly and solldly, unlike the "theory" of evolution, which is yet far from being established as a fact. In the beginning God...

      February 20, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • JoeR

      Depends on which "Law of Gravity" you are referring. Newton's conception of gravity (The Universal Law of Gravitation, etc.) has actually been replaced by relativity (introduces the conception of space-time). We still use Newton's laws because (1) they work pretty darn well for most scales (2) the math for relativity can be overly complex for most systems.

      Also, I am not shocked you have fallen victim to reducing the term "theory" to implying "not proven". No modern biologist outright rejects evolution (unless they have some religious bias). The "theory" itself is not disputed, only the details.

      Too many layman get caught up on epistemological-loaded terms such as "law" and "theory" as a means of showing the current level of proof or acceptance.

      February 21, 2011 at 3:49 am | Report abuse |
    • myoleman

      Echoing the scientific philosopher Karl Popper, Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time states, "A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations." He goes on to state, "Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis; you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory." The "unprovable but falsifiable" nature of theories is a necessary consequence of using inductive logic.
      @ joeR

      February 21, 2011 at 9:18 am | Report abuse |
    • JoeR

      "Laws" are not facts either. I am not saying either "laws" or "theories" are absolute FACTS. They are however the best at explaining particular phenomenon.

      February 21, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Funkymonkey1

    Out of curiosity (and I ask this in all seriousness), how does one contain 4 trillion degrees?

    February 20, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • myoleman

      It's pure nonsense. Just like the joke about the guy who invented the "universal solvent", but couldn't capitalize on his invention since he could find a container to store it in that wouldn't be dissolved by it. But, Hey, a scientist says it's true, so believe it blindly!

      February 20, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Albert

      The volume of the heat is very small, so it is contained in the collider. Won't be fun if it got out.

      February 20, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • JoeR

      Just like Albert said, the temperature is different from heat. The scale we are dealing with is extremely (and I mean extremely) small. So small, the amount of heat radiated off is insignificant, but regardless its temp. can be 4 trillion degrees.

      @ myoleman: just wow....

      February 21, 2011 at 3:53 am | Report abuse |
  4. Sam

    " Scientists can only see the consequences of this quark-gluon plasma and must draw conclusions from the ordinary matter that it becomes."

    So the 4 trillon degrees wasn't actually measured, the "scientists" simply observed the leftover ordinary matter. 10 billion dollars. Now that's some expensive snake oil.

    February 20, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      Two things for you to consider, Sammy.
      First, this is a EUROPEAN effort, so it isn't your money or your call.
      Second, want to dispute the measurement? I'll gladly pay for you to go there and have a special chamber made for you to insert your finger into for the test.

      February 20, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • JoeR

      Yeah it must be snake oil as I can see no immediate benefit in my daily life! Ayi yi yi, people....

      February 21, 2011 at 3:59 am | Report abuse |
  5. Just some guy

    10 billion for priceless knowledge. I say double the funding.

    February 20, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Art In Chicago

    Yes Dr. Quest, I will heat the earth to 4 trillion degrees. Race, hit him with the freezo ray!

    February 20, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Justina

    Come with any number you imagine, all you want. The present universe may be only a grand show only to be replaced with some other universe coming soon.

    February 20, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Shayne

    "When water heats up above a mere 212 degrees Fahrenheit, it turns into a gas. "

    It actually turns into vapour not gas. If that was true we would have hydrogen explosions in our kitchens.

    February 20, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      Vapor is by definition a gas.

      February 20, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • kanon


      February 20, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Ben Ben

    All they have to do is open the Bible and read Genesis 1:1 if they want to know how the universe was created.

    February 20, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Report abuse |
  10. EhngleshTeechur

    @Doug: You're right. It's= It is/ Its is the possessive word for it. Really it should almost be the other way since most the time an apostrophe is used for possessive wording. Most errors I notice (my own not withstanding) on news sites is the incorrect usage of but, and, for etc.. I was taught certain things recently at school, but could be wrong about that. This has to do about science though.

    February 20, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
  11. myoleman

    When scientists, today, state that the "quarks" and "gluons" which are the fundamental building blocks of matter, get pulled out of "pure empty space" people listen in awe. When the Bible states, written centuries ago, that God made the world out of nothing, atheists jeer and ridicule it. In the beginning God...

    February 20, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Heather

      The science says matter can be created out of energy, without mass. Not out of nothing. Energy is something to start with. It's not the same as proving that an omnipotent being could invent itself into existence from nothing.

      February 21, 2011 at 3:07 am | Report abuse |
  12. AtheistAndroid

    The universe was created from nothing. It just appeared magically.

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

      Can you draw that?

      February 20, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Tlil

    Soon is not soon enough for me, Justina. Hope the next universe, or the multiverses operating in another frequency, is less violent than ours - a kinder, gentler universe. No more food chains and galaxy smashing

    February 20, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Onitama

      And there goes the universe to overpopulation. the food chain is required to keep species populations in check. thanks for playin. ONITAMA PWNS ALL!

      February 21, 2011 at 4:29 am | Report abuse |
  14. Just some guy

    @ben ben – The details were not provided. We just want to clarify.

    February 20, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Mr. Im Right

    I hope it creates a black hole and eats the whole middle east. Those people deserve to get erased from the map

    February 20, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brent

      . . . and I'm certain they feel the same about you.

      February 20, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Onitama

      Including all the american soldiers over there? Good Job, Thanks for playin.

      February 21, 2011 at 4:31 am | Report abuse |
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