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Mini Big Bangs and Meatballs

Big bangs were in the news recently and who doesn’t like a big bang?

The Large Hadron Collider or LHC has been reported to have made many little big bang-like explosions deep within its technological bowels.

Don’t worry though, there wont be any new universes resulting from this because if there were you’d probably be dead by now (or would you?).

The experiment is still pretty interesting and there is some connection after all to the real big bang 13.7 billion years ago.


Typically, the LHC collides protons together and looks at the debris to learn, among other things, whether the Higgs boson exists which is believed to imbue matter with mass. This is the only remaining particle that our standard model of physics predicts that we haven’t found and it’s a whopper. What would the universe be like if mass was massless?

Recently however, scientists at the LHC have switched gears and instead of whacking protons together, they’ve been stripping electrons from lead atoms and smashing the resulting nuclei together.

Lead atoms are darn hefty (in the atomic realm at least) with 82 protons and 126 neutrons in the nucleus. When they are accelerated to close to the speed of light (ultrarelativistic speeds) you can actually achieve temperatures and energy densities similar to one millionth of a second after the big  bang.

We’re talking about 10 million million degrees centigrade or a million times hotter than the center of the sun.

These are the highest temperatures and densities ever produced in an experiment.

 You may have heard of this experiment referred to as ALICE. This refers to one of the four main detectors around the LHC’s 27 km underground ring. ALICE is designed specifically to deal with these lead atom collisions. 

I don’t know the names of the other 3 detectors, perhaps they’re Ralph, Ed, and Trixie–or maybe Bob, Carole, and Ted. 4 experience points if you know what the hell I’m talking about.

Dr David Evans:from the University of Birmingham, UK, is one of the researchers working on the ALICE experiment said:

“At these temperatures even protons and neutrons, which make up the nuclei of atoms, melt resulting in a hot dense soup of quarks and  gluons known as a quark-gluon plasma.”

A quark-gluon plasma is considered another state of matter after the usual suspects: solid-liquid-gas-plasma-Bose Einstein Condesate etc

Quarks make up neutrons and protons. Gluons are the Color force carrying particles between quarks. At these temperatures, quarks aren’t really bound together anymore so you have this soup of particles.

By studying the QGP, scientists hope to elucidate the strong nuclear force which holds the nuclei of atoms together. This force accounts for 98% the mass of the atom and thus 98% of the mass of everything, you…me…meatballs…whatever.

Thanks god for the strong force (and the Higgs Boson) because massless meatballs are not something I like thinking about.

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