Thursday, April 21, 2005

20,000 Geeks Beneath the Sea

During the first microseconds after the Big Bang, the entire universe was an incredibly dense, incredibly hot, ball of plasma-like gas. (Plasma is a fourth state of matter, a highly-ionized gas like substance consisting of free electrons and atomic nuclei.)

Well, that's what we thought, anyway.
New results from a particle collider suggest that the universe behaved like a liquid in its earliest moments, not the fiery gas that was thought to have pervaded the first microseconds of existence[, AP reported on Tuesday].

By revising physicists' concept of the early universe, the new discovery offers opportunities to better learn how subatomic particles interact at the most fundamental level. It may also reveal intriguing parallels between gravity and the force that holds atomic nuclei together....

Between 2000 and 2003 the [Brookhaven National Laboratory's] Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, known as RHIC, repeatedly smashed the nuclei of gold atoms together with such force that their energy briefly generated trillion-degree temperatures. Physicists think of the collider as a time machine, because those extreme temperature conditions last prevailed in the universe less than 100 millionths of a second after the big bang.

Everything was so hot then that quarks and gluons, which are now almost inextricably bound into the protons and neutrons inside atomic nuclei, were thought to have flown around like BBs in a blender.

But by reproducing the conditions of the early universe, RHIC has shown that unconstrained quarks and gluons don't fly away in all directions so much as squirt out in streams.
In fact, the matter created acts like an almost "perfect" liquid, that is, one with zero viscosity, or resistance to flow. Truly zero viscosity is impossible in the physical world but one researcher said this may be as close to it as anything can be.

It gives a different aspect to what the very early universe was like and, through the intermediary of the impossibly complex and often arcane mathematics of string theory, offers once again the tantalizing possibility - just the possibility - of reaching the Holy Grail of physics: a grand unified theory that would successfully unite the laws of the universe on the smallest scale (where quantum physics reigns supreme) and the largest scale (where gravity runs the show) into one theoretical structure.

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