Birth of the universe, in Long Island
In a subterranean laboratory in N.Y., scientists this week begin a quest to re-create the big bang.
Every so often, technology gives scientists the opportunity to test their theories and unravel some of the most fundamental questions of existence.Skip to next paragraph
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Archimedes had his lever. Galileo had his telescope. Now, Tim Hallman has his Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.
This week, the underground ring of titanium wires and slender magnetic tubes on New York's Long Island began experiments to create conditions that existed at the time of the big bang.
In a subterranean racetrack the size of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Dr. Hallman and colleagues will accelerate two packs of gold ions to 99.995 percent the speed of light, and slam them into each other. They hope to rip the particles apart in a microcataclysm that generates temperatures 10,000 times hotter than the sun's core.
Specifically, the goal is to make the cosmic soup that scientists think existed only for a fraction of a second after the birth of the universe. But more broadly, this quest - and the new facility - represent a major step forward for American science. Stung by Congress's decision to stop building the Semiconducting Supercollider in Texas in 1993, US physicists now have a new machine that will help put them on the leading edge of particle physics again.
Through it, scientists hope to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of matter and the forces that bind creation.
"Anyone who struggles to understand the world wants to know, 'What's out there?' and 'Where did we come from?' " says Joe Kapusta, a physicist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "Mankind now has the ability to figuratively go back 12 billion years to within that one microsecond of when it all began."
Physicists believe they have an idea of what those first brief moments looked like.
Basically, they say, the universe was so hot that atoms couldn't form. Particles called quarks, which are usually bound in threes to make up protons and neutrons - the most massive part of an atom - were free to flow through a trillion-degree broth.
This state of matter is known as quark-gluon plasma, and it's the starting point for current theories about how the universe evolved. If scientists using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) can create it, they'll go a long way toward confirming what physicists think about the formation of matter.
"First, to know that [the theory] is right, and then to know the way the transition [from plasma to more-recognizable matter] occurs is vital," says Nathan Isgur of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Va. "You can't do science without checking a theory as fundamental as this."
Yet scientists have gotten it wrong before.
Physicist Hallman knows that, and it doesn't seem to bother him. In fact, the faint curve of a smile appears under the white bristles of his moustache when he mentions the "ultraviolet catastrophe" - a turn-of-the-century experiment on radiation that confounded scientists' expectations.
Scientists were forced to think in new ways to understand the puzzling data. The result: Quantum physics was born, and one of the most fecund periods of scientific history - encompassing Albert Einstein and Max Planck - followed.
It's foolish to forecast any such burst of brilliance before these new tests. But Hallman and others hope that by probing quarks while they're free to roam, they'll get unprecedented insight into how the universe is constructed.
"It tests our understanding of how matter is put together by the strong force," says Hallman, referring to the force that binds quarks.
The quest to understand the structure of matter dates back millenniums, to Democritus and the Golden Age of Athens, when he and other thinkers theorized that everything was made up of smaller atomic pieces.
Twenty-five centuries later, though, the power of this machine, buried beneath stands of Long Island oak and pine, has given some people pause. Indeed, for many, it is known best as the accelerator that could destroy the world.
An Earth-destroying machine?