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. Tlil

    How can space be empty?

    February 20, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Heather

      It may be empty of mass but full of energy. Mass can be created out of energy.

      February 21, 2011 at 3:09 am | Report abuse |
  2. Chris

    What I want to know is how do they measure the 4 trillion degree temperature? Stick a thermometer up its bum? I'm sure the heat is only present for a nano-second and only within a small handful of nan-particles so I suspect there are some calculations involved here. Bet they never really got hotter than 3.848734 trillion degrees! These scientists are always exaggerating, right Donna? Look at all those bogus climate change claims. Hmm. I wonder how long it will take the "trust in the old storybook, not in facts" fraternity to start blaming global warming on this. LOL

    /eclectos..

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

      IMakes no sense, but a scientist said it, so better believe it!

      February 20, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • mr2

      @myoleman: Someone wrote a book - so, I better believe it.

      February 21, 2011 at 8:50 am | Report abuse |
  3. Nemo

    AHa!! yea, ah ok I understand 15% of that. mmm

    February 20, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Nemo

    Can you guys put my wife and me on the collide chamber, We wanna collide, Ill promise ill pass the 4 trillion

    February 20, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Joel

    You can always tell a stupid uneducated American when they ask if the LHC can make popcorn. And people wonder why Sarah Palin is still popular.

    February 20, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  6. AtheistAndroid

    Why does everyone ignore the fact that perhaps God (having infinite wisdom) created our universe with the big bang? Does not infinite wisdom include math and science? What bothers me is religion confining God to a stereotype of just some white bearded guy sitting on a cloud. If you had infinite wisdom and power would you not want to create wonders like our universe or beings to inhabit it? The more I learn about science the more I believe it took someone with amazing knowledge to create such wonders. There's always balance in science as well as religion. Good vs evil or positive energy forces vs negative energy forces. Makes sense to me.

    February 20, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • myoleman

      Why do you assume that the "Big Bang" theory is a fact? A theory is not a fact. Even scientists admit that the "big bang" is far from being a proven fact. Chances are they'll come up with something new in the future. They always do. It's just like evolution, people readily accept it as fact, yet in reality it's anything but. In the beginning God...

      February 20, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      @ myoleman Please look up the scientific definition of the word "theory." Do, you understand now?

      February 20, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • baseline

      @myoleman–Gravity is a theory too, and you never see anything falling up!

      February 21, 2011 at 12:30 am | Report abuse |
    • HJ

      No intelligent being would have chosen the current model of mammalian reproduction. You have to have experienced pregnancy and childbirth (and have been medically educated enough to realize all that is really happening to you) to know how idiotic an idea this is.

      February 21, 2011 at 3:12 am | Report abuse |
    • JoeR

      @ myoleman

      Again, please understand that theory does not equate "unproven" or even "disputed". Terms such as law, theory, or hypothesis are commonly abused by individuals who equate the everyday usage of such terms as being identical to the scientific usage. They are not the same. There are many reasons to believe the Big Expansion occurred (Notice how I removed Bang, another word people just LOVE to abuse).

      February 21, 2011 at 4:12 am | Report abuse |
    • JoeR

      @AtheistAndriod

      A common line of reasoning is that complex things must be made by a complex being. However, it can also be the case that simple occurrences (being or non-being) can increase in complexity.

      February 21, 2011 at 4:20 am | Report abuse |
    • myoleman

      @joeR "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.
      Theories can, and are disputed. Theories are not facts.

      February 21, 2011 at 9:23 am | Report abuse |
    • JoeR

      Of course "theories" can be disputed, but as can "laws", however this does not mean they lack evidence. I have read Popper, and yes you can never completely hold something as "true". You can only show something as false, however just finding one false thing about evolution does not mean it as a whole is not "true". It means the particular mechanisms for explaining evolution are false. The basic premise of evolution has not be shown false.

      February 21, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  7. guest124

    4 trillion degrees is the temperature inside my girl friend's p***y

    February 20, 2011 at 11:07 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Zero10

    I don't care what brilliant minds endorse this insanity. Doing something like this is unknown territory and could be dangerous. They should at least do this in space or somewhere not on our only planet.

    February 20, 2011 at 11:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tarzan, on his way to swinging from trees

      Don't worry! Crazy physicists need reliable engineers working for them! Reliable engineers keep bad things from happening (notwithstanding collapsing bridges). My only problem here is that I can't vouch for how European engineers do things.. They all speak in foreign languages and use SI, of course that's dangerous. 😀

      February 20, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Marc

    That's 4 trillion degrees Celsius which is 7.2 trillion degrees Fahrenheit

    February 20, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Brent

    For the life of me, I can't understand how man can contain that kind of heat, even if for a fraction of a second. I would tend to believe that that heat would immediately melt earth.

    February 20, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      There is actually not very much heat at all because there are only a very small number of particles that are at that temperature.

      Also, they can't really contain it that well anyway. In fact, as I understand it, if the particle in question is not charged (e.g., a neutron) then they cannot contain it at all. It just flies off wherever it wants to.

      February 20, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
  11. BOBO7

    4 trillion degrees? It would still take at least two hours to bake a potato.

    February 20, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Nick Normal

    awesome stuff CERN. keep up the good work!

    February 20, 2011 at 11:43 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Donovan

    Maybe it will bring the housing market back

    February 20, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Report abuse |
  14. jc

    Your view of God determines what you do. To not even try to read the Bible is to say, "i am god". To understand why we are here on this planet earth, you owe it to yourselves to find out what the Bible has to say. To miss reading the Bible is to miss the test of your ideas no matter how smart you think you are. God is greater than you might think. Pride blocks freedom of conscience into uncharted territories. Read the Bible and see for yourself what God has to say before you jump to conclusions. Test yourself with its wisdom! Ever wonder why it's still the all-time best-seller? You'll be surprised what it can do to your life. You'll never really grasp what's on the other side of the fence by just peeking. You have to be really there even just for a season. It might just be what you've been looking for significance in this short life of yours. I can't tell you much how good a scenery was, until you see it for yourself. No matter how smart we are, there remains endless room for perfection.

    February 21, 2011 at 12:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      I have read the Bible. When I was just a kid, I believed in it. Of course, I also believed in Santa and the Tooth Fairy. When I reached a certain age, I finally came to the realization that most of what the bible says is complete BS. An interesting collection of stories, full of important moral lessons, but BS nonetheless.

      February 21, 2011 at 2:55 am | Report abuse |
    • HJ

      The Bible is indeed a wonderful literary work and piece of history. It's got true stories and fables. And biblical scholars actually know which are which. A small percentage is historically accurate; the rest is either embellished or completely fabricated. Men wrote it, after all; God was not personally involved with this project.

      February 21, 2011 at 3:20 am | Report abuse |
    • mr2

      Why does it always sound like you guys are trying to sell me something? Stop trying to get me or anyone else to follow in your beliefs. I need something tangible and you just can't come up with the goods. All the bible is, is a rule book for some make believe fraternity that I can't be a part of unless I act accordingly.

      February 21, 2011 at 9:00 am | Report abuse |
  15. Richard

    I don't know why they bother publishing stuff like this. Most of the morons they now cater to are FAR happier reading the People magazine-inspired "entertainment" section. Cretins all...

    February 21, 2011 at 12:18 am | Report abuse |
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