Big Bang query: Mapping how a mysterious liquid became all matter

January 14, 2019, Lehigh University
A new perspective of the STAR detector at RHIC, seen through crystal ball refraction photography.The photo was a finalist for Brookhaven National Laboratory's Photowalk in 2018. Credit: Joe Caggiano

The leading theory about how the universe began is the Big Bang, which says that 14 billion years ago the universe existed as a singularity, a one-dimensional point, with a vast array of fundamental particles contained within it. Extremely high heat and energy caused it to inflate and then expand into the cosmos as we know it—and, the expansion continues to this day.

The initial result of the Big Bang was an intensely hot and energetic liquid that existed for mere microseconds that was around 10 billion degrees Fahrenheit (5.5 billion Celsius). This liquid contained nothing less than the building blocks of all matter. As the universe cooled, the particles decayed or combined giving rise to... well, everything.

Quark-gluon plasma (QGP) is the name for this mysterious substance so called because it was made up of quarks—the fundamental particles—and gluons, which physicist Rosi J. Reed describes as "what quarks use to talk to each other."

Scientists like Reed, an assistant professor in Lehigh University's Department of Physics whose research includes experimental high-energy physics, cannot go back in time to study how the Universe began. So they re-create the circumstances, by colliding , such as Gold, at nearly the speed of light, generating an environment that is 100,000 times hotter than the interior of the sun. The collision mimics how quark-gluon plasma became matter after the Big Bang, but in reverse: the heat melts the ions' protons and neutrons, releasing the quarks and gluons hidden inside them.

There are currently only two operational accelerators in the world capable of colliding heavy ions—and only one in the U.S.: Brookhaven National Lab's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC). It is about a three-hour drive from Lehigh, in Long Island, New York.

Reed is part of the STAR Collaboration , an international group of scientists and engineers running experiments on the Solenoidal Tracker at RHIC (STAR). The STAR detector is massive and is actually made up of many detectors. It is as large as a house and weighs 1,200 tons. STAR's specialty is tracking the thousands of particles produced by each ion collision at RHIC in search of the signatures of quark-gluon plasma.

"When running experiments there are two 'knobs' we can change: the species—such as gold on gold or proton on proton—and the collision energy," says Reed. "We can accelerate the ions differently to achieve different energy-to-mass ratio."

Using the various STAR detectors, the team collides ions at different collision energies. The goal is to map quark-gluon plasma's phase diagram, or the different points of transition as the material changes under varying pressure and temperature conditions. Mapping quark-gluon plasma's phase diagram is also mapping the nuclear strong force, otherwise known as Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD), which is the force that holds positively charged protons together.

The photo was a winner in Brookhaven National Laboratory's 2018 Photowalk . Credit: Steven Schreiber
"There are a bunch of protons and neutrons in the center of an ion," explains Reed. "These are positively charged and should repel, but there's a 'strong force' that keeps them together? strong enough to overcome their tendency to come apart."

Understanding quark-gluon plasma's phase diagram, and the location and existence of the phase transition between the plasma and normal matter is of fundamental importance, says Reed.

"It's a unique opportunity to learn how one of the four fundamental forces of nature operates at temperature and energy densities similar to those that existed only microseconds after the Big Bang," says Reed.

Upgrading the RHIC detectors to better map the "strong force"

The STAR team uses a Beam Energy Scan (BES) to do the phase transition mapping. During the first part of the project, known as BES-I, the team collected observable evidence with "intriguing results." Reed presented these results at the 5th Joint Meeting of the APS Division of Nuclear Physics and the Physical Society of Japan in Hawaii in October 2018 in a talk titled: "Testing the limits with energy and species scans at RHIC."

However, limited statistics, acceptance, and poor event plane resolution did not allow firm conclusions for a discovery. The second phase of the project, known as BES-II, is going forward and includes an improvement that Reed is working on with STAR team members: an upgrade of the Event Plane Detector. Collaborators include scientists at Brookhaven as well as at Ohio State University.

The STAR team plans to continue to run experiments and collect data in 2019 and 2020, using the new Event Plane Detector. According to Reed, the new detector is designed to precisely locate where the collision happens and will help characterize the collision, specifically how "head on" it is.

"It will also help improve the measurement capabilities of all the other detectors," says Reed.

The STAR collaboration expects to run their next experiments at RHIC in March 2019.

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19 comments

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EyeNStein
4.6 / 5 (8) Jan 14, 2019
Real frontier physics. It'll be great to see phase change diagrams in future QCD textbooks!
This is the least accessible of the forces, as its usually too confined to experiment on.
torbjorn_b_g_larsson
4.4 / 5 (11) Jan 14, 2019
So yeah, a progress report only, but cool results when done.

However, this is a turn off:

"The leading theory about how the universe began is the Big Bang, which says that 14 billion years ago the universe existed as a singularity, a one-dimensional point, with a vast array of fundamental particles contained within it."

That is not the leading theory - it is LCDM, which is inflationary - that is not what the Big Bang part of LCDM says - it avoids singularities - and that is not a singularity - since they are unphysical.

If scientists can't get their university press departments to present the science and without confusion, who can?

RealityCheck
2.3 / 5 (12) Jan 14, 2019
@torbjorn_b_g_larsson.
So yeah, a progress report only, but cool results when done.

However, this is a turn off:

"The leading theory about how the universe began is the Big Bang, which says that 14 billion years ago the universe existed as a singularity, a one-dimensional point, with a vast array of fundamental particles contained within it."

That is not the leading theory - it is LCDM, which is inflationary - that is not what the Big Bang part of LCDM says - it avoids singularities - and that is not a singularity - since they are unphysical.

If scientists can't get their university press departments to present the science and without confusion, who can?

I sympathize. It's also terribly disappointing that mainstream science-publishing 'apparatus' allows continued promulgation of misleading FANTASY 'interpretations' of the REAL observational data. I still await mainstream realization/publication that CMB is being produced NOW, all over (no BB/Inflation needed). :)
RobertKarlStonjek
3 / 5 (4) Jan 14, 2019
Interesting to note that we have returned to the 1960s version of the Big Bang which included a singularity and all the mass of the universe packed into it.

The Lambda CDM version (the current version) includes inflation which predicts that most of the matter of the universe came into existence during the inflationary period paradoxically creating as much matter as antimatter which is not actually observed. The prediction is that a tiny asymmetry will be discovered that will somehow result in matter after the matter and antimatter annihilate each other.

So why the 1960s model? Have the failure of the GUT and TOE theories and other problems of the original Big Bang been overcome? Why no headlines on that development???
Da Schneib
3.7 / 5 (10) Jan 14, 2019
The problem, @torbjorn, is that the people writing press releases are generally journalism students because the physicists and physics students are all busy doing physics and writing papers in order to try to make a career, and don't have time for press releases. One can try educating the journalism students, but they are out in 4 years competing for journalism and PR careers. Then there's a new crop.

Some scientists see this, and once they are well-established try to do something about it by writing books for the popular science market, but most people don't think it's relevant to their lives and don't bother to read them.

As this stuff gets more and more complicated, particularly inflation in LCDM, and the vacuum decay that resulted in our universe being the way it is, it gets harder and harder to educate the journalism students who write these press releases. And as money becomes tighter and tighter because people won't pay taxes, the money for them gets less and less.
valeriy_polulyakh
1.8 / 5 (5) Jan 14, 2019
If we believe that our World has started sometimes ago we are still in the position to decide which hypothesis, Lemaître's or Gamow's was closer to reality. There is an opinion that the problems in the standard cosmology could be solved by adjusting of details. Our suggestion is that we have to go back to the conceptions and use the observations accumulated since.
https://www.acade...osmology
Da Schneib
4.1 / 5 (7) Jan 14, 2019
Try explaining to someone who doesn't know Newton's Laws of Motion how vacuum decay works. Never mind complicated stuff like inflation, quarks, gluons, and QCD.

Incidentally, if anyone wonders why I call what is commonly referred to as the "strong force" the "color force," note that QCD stands for "quantum chromodynamics." Notice the "chromo" in there? That's Greek for "color." And the strong nuclear force is actually a residual force of the color force, just as van Der Waals forces are residual forces of the EM (electromagnetic) force.
RedShiftBaron
1.5 / 5 (6) Jan 14, 2019
@RealityCheck, I feel the same way:
mainstream science-publishing 'apparatus' allows continued promulgation of misleading FANTASY 'interpretations' of the REAL observational data. I still await mainstream realization/publication that CMB is being produced NOW, all over (no BB/Inflation needed). :)

Some scientists are trying, but without much success as mainstream journals highlight success of LCDM, not the failures. You might want to check out cosmology.info...
Sahstar
4.5 / 5 (8) Jan 14, 2019
Good article, though the introduction is quite flawed. A "one-dimensional point"? Really? I thought points by definition were zero-dimensional. One-dimensional "points" are, er, lines. I also thought that singularities exist only in math and never in the real world. Singularities in physics and mathematical physics are code-word for "our math breaks down at this point".
TimLong2001
1 / 5 (4) Jan 15, 2019
Before particles formed, charges had to pair up to form photons. Eventually pair-formation produced the first particles as electrons and positrons. Beta pairs also combined to create nucleons. This took a long time, but the process is supersymmetric.
grandpa
1.9 / 5 (9) Jan 15, 2019
Big bang is to physics as the earth created 6000 years ago is to fundamentalist Christians.
NeMaTo
1.2 / 5 (6) Jan 15, 2019
The intro sentence to this article pretty much ends my interest in Phys.org.

Seriously, a 1-D point?? And to not know that the 'leading' LCDM model does not start with a singularity??

Thank you Phs.org and all the other fake ass news outlets for destroying modern journalism. I'm out.
Da Schneib
4.4 / 5 (7) Jan 15, 2019
@Ne, sorry you have trouble with the first year journalism students. Maybe you should read the actual papers instead of giving so much credence to the first year journalism.

Just FYI, this wasn't written by physorg. It's a direct copy from a press release from the university.
torbjorn_b_g_larsson
5 / 5 (5) Jan 16, 2019
@torbjorn_b_g_larsson ... I sympathize. It's also terribly disappointing that mainstream science-publishing 'apparatus' allows continued promulgation of misleading FANTASY 'interpretations' of the REAL observational data. I still await mainstream realization/publication that CMB is being produced NOW, all over (no BB/Inflation needed). :)


I doubt you sympathize at all because you enthusiastically - and against evidence described in the very article under discussion - crap on published science in the next sentence.

As for the end part, I don't understand if you are trying to pretend interest but are confused. CMB is observed (now, to be precise) from all over [Planck Legacy Archives] but locally the process happened 14 billion years ago and due to relativity there is no universal defined "now". (There are several useful definitions, if you want one.) This is not rocket science.
cantdrive85
2.8 / 5 (4) Jan 16, 2019
"In the beginning there was the plasma"
Hannes Alfvén
RealityCheck
1 / 5 (3) Jan 17, 2019
@torbjorn_b_g_larsson.
CMB is observed (now, to be precise) from all over [Planck Legacy Archives] but locally the process happened 14 billion years ago and due to relativity there is no universal defined "now".
Seems you 'didn't get the memo', mate!

Recent mainstream reports increasingly confirm that most if not all:

- DIFFUSE processes in deep space involving gas, plasma, dust etc E-M waves reflection/absorption/emissions; and also,

- CONCENTRATED processes associated with planetary/stellar/BH-disc-and-jets/galactic/gal-cluster E-M production...

...emit a NEARLY-BLACK-BODY SPECTRUM (ie, ALL frequencies).

And guess what? Between the Ultra-long Radiowaves and the Far-InfraRed waves, the MICROWAVES being so emitted at innumerable 'Local Nows', form the COSMIC MICROWAVE BACKGROUND SPECTRUM we observe HERE, both from deep space and from specific features/sources.

Understand? CMB is NOT from an 'alleged BB event'.

ps: And "universal now" was NOT implied. Ok? :)
RealityCheck
1 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2019
@RedShiftBaron.
@RealityCheck, I feel the same way:
mainstream science-publishing 'apparatus' allows continued promulgation of misleading FANTASY 'interpretations' of the REAL observational data. I still await mainstream realization/publication that CMB is being produced NOW, all over (no BB/Inflation needed). :)
Some scientists are trying, but without much success as mainstream journals highlight success of LCDM, not the failures. You might want to check out cosmology.info...
Please forgive the late reply; I've been v. busy offline of late. Thankyou for your response including your opinion re what I wrote; and also for the url to 'cosmology.info' (very interesting reading, thanks). By the way, you allude to 'successes of LCDM'. I would like to hear what 'successes' these are; since, as far as I know, there is no mainstream theory yet able to actually explain reality consistently and completely. Also, 'exotic' DM especially is 'missing in action' still. :)
johnqsmith
not rated yet Jan 18, 2019
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I understand that the latest LCDM theory starts at the start of Inflation. The period before that has no generally accepted theory, or even hypothesis. Whether that initial period itself starts with an event represented by a "singularity" is unknown. Polite physicists make no mention of such an event.

Apart from that, I see much humor in recognizing that the currently most supported "theory" of the beginnings and evolution of the Universe does not have a theory for those things that make up the very title of the theory. Some might say that such a development is philosophically equivalent to saying that God is behind the evolution of the Universe. I myself think there's a difference, but I wouldn't mind playing devil's advocate.
RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Jan 24, 2019
Interesting diatribe, @Da Schneib, and what you said is often true enough. But this article is a press release provided by the Lehigh University and not the result of journalist's musings.

The problem is that at one end, expansion of the universe, we have near consensus whilst at the other end, the quantum account of of the events from the beginning through inflation, we have nothing more than competing speculation, all mathematically consistent but with variables based on estimates which are driven by researcher's beliefs, that is, what they want to be true.

Before the Planck era the speculation goes from mathematically consistent and plausible to wild speculation of the kind better known to science fiction.

Inflation is entirely hypothetical, is not based on any observation, is not falsifiable by any of the usual means, occurs for no apparent reason, stops for no apparent reason, is driven by no know mechanism was contrived from whole cloth to save the Big Bang

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