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. baseline

    I would like to see some explanation of HOW the temperature is determined. Obviously they don't just stick a thermometer in there.

    February 21, 2011 at 12:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      Well, they know the speed of the particles from the parameters of the experiment. Consequently, they can easily calculate the energy of the particles. Since temperature is nothing but a measure of the average particle energy, they therefore can calculate the temperature of the particles at the moment of impact.

      February 21, 2011 at 3:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Mons

      The "temperature" is determined by measuring the energy of the particles that emerge from the collision. They come flying out of the collision at very high speeds, and their energy is measured by detectors they pass through in flight. Some of these detectors use magnetic fields - magnetic fields bend charged particles, and slower (lower energy) particles bend more sharply. Other detectors produce light as a particle passes through it, with higher energy particles producing more light. By measuring the paths of the particles, the amount of light produced, etc., the experiment can determine total energy in the collision.

      February 21, 2011 at 3:13 am | Report abuse |
  2. ThePreacher2

    Yeah, but it's a dry heat, y'know? Beats New Orleans in July any day

    February 21, 2011 at 12:45 am | Report abuse |
  3. Jaded

    Typical CNN – wanting to cover some real news, but without the ability to do it justice. Had the artilce contained more rigorous scientific content, the numerous banal comments would seem out of place... but given the poor quality of the artilce, those of us who foolishly followed the link to the article are left to vent our frustration with meaningless banter. Personally, I'd love to know more about how 'quarks and gluons get pulled out of pure empty space' and am intrigued by the fact that they plan to double the energy to 14TeV... but I am left wanting. Please, CNN, hire an editor that demands quality reporting for those of us with more than a 5th grade education.

    February 21, 2011 at 12:52 am | Report abuse |
  4. ThePreacher2

    My favorite comment so far is the guy who thinks that water can't possibly turn into a "gas", otherwise our kitchens would explode. I read these comments, and I weep for the future..

    February 21, 2011 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
  5. Wade Garrett

    But it's a dry heat!

    February 21, 2011 at 1:03 am | Report abuse |
  6. ThePreacher2

    Beat you, Wade!

    February 21, 2011 at 1:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Onitama

      doesnt matter if it is a dry heat or not... it will still kill you.

      February 21, 2011 at 4:54 am | Report abuse |
  7. Robert

    My understanding of super fluids like liquid helium is that they traditionally only occur at temperatures approaching absolute zero. Had no idea that zero viscosity fluids can exist at higher temps. I guess anything is possible @ 4 trillion degrees XD.

    Also, I like how they mention that quarks and gluons can be pulled out of "empty" space. This is probably one of the most sound foundations of interdimensional travel. Really fascinating stuff.

    February 21, 2011 at 1:20 am | Report abuse |
  8. ivnaguilar

    You gotta love science! just wish more people would pay attention to it and actually strive to make more scientific gains..cuz science is interesting not going to lie.

    February 21, 2011 at 1:37 am | Report abuse |
  9. Warex

    Eventually a group of scientists will attempt 30 tev thus producing the big bang. The universe is recreated, everything starts over, Life happens and here we are playing god once again. Wrap your head around that one!

    February 21, 2011 at 1:40 am | Report abuse |
  10. Anon

    I can't wait till they crank it up to 14 Tev that's when the real discoveries should begin!

    February 21, 2011 at 1:50 am | Report abuse |
  11. oneSTARman

    UNIMAGINABLE Temperature x Infinite Pressure = Zero Volume; or something like that from the Ideal Gas Law. Pressure at the core of Jupiter turning Hydrogen into Metal – 4 Trillion Degree Zero Viscosity Fluid Plasma. Approaching Infinite Density and approaching Zero Volume at the center of a Black Hole and at the Moment of the Big Bang UNIMAGINABLE

    February 21, 2011 at 1:51 am | Report abuse |
  12. roflamericanwinner

    Hydrogen bombs are already exploding at 700 million f. this is only what.... 5 and a half times hawttttter?

    February 21, 2011 at 1:52 am | Report abuse |
  13. Sally Li

    Federal spending is reaching Big Bang levels. That's my conclusion from reading this headline. The best Federal Government spending investment has been space. There are those who object to "sending all our money into outer space".
    The impact of NASA spending and other Federally-sponsored space research isn't really more than one per cent of the budget – but if we sent 10% of all Federal dollars into space, it would help to get inflation under check by tightening up on the money supply, and this might restore the value of the dollar.

    February 21, 2011 at 1:53 am | Report abuse |
    • roflamericanwinner

      Obama pretty much shut space exploration out. Hopefully you are not one of the all too common liberal hippocrites. I'm neither party FYI

      February 21, 2011 at 2:11 am | Report abuse |
    • mr2

      This is a European project....how are people still not understanding this?

      February 21, 2011 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
  14. Craig Mack


    February 21, 2011 at 1:56 am | Report abuse |
  15. coastal

    Hey, where are the Charlie Sheen jokes??!! C'mon, people! I am disappointed!! You guys never miss a beat!! You know, Crack Pipes, Libido, Salary....let's go!!

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