7 trillion degrees Fahrenheit: Atom-smashing physicists break temperature record

An atom smasher at Brookhaven National Laboratory has attained a Guinness World Record for highest manmade temperature, generating heat that is 250,000 times warmer than the sun.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
An ordinary proton or neutron (foreground) is formed of three quarks bound together by gluons, carriers of the color force. Above a critical temperature, protons and neutrons and other forms of hadronic matter "melt" into a hot, dense soup of free quarks and gluons (background), the quark-gluon plasma.

A giant atom-smashing racetrack of sorts has just broken a Guinness World Record by reaching the highest man-made temperature ever recorded, scientists announced Monday (June 25).

How hot? 250,000 times hotter than the center of the sun.

This scorching achievement happened inside the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), which is a 2.4-mile (3.9 kilometers) underground track where particles smash into one another under conditions that existed about a millionth of a second after the Big Bang.

The new feat, at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., occurred when gold nuclei (the positively charged part of the atom made of protons and neutrons) were sent speeding around RHIC at near light-speed until they crashed into each other. When the ions collide, the enormous energy released is so intense it melts the neutrons and protons inside the gold nuclei into their constituent parts, namely quarks and gluons. [Album: Behind the Scenes at RHIC]

This soup of quarks and gluons formed nearly friction-free primordial plasma thought to resemble the stuff that filled the universe just after the Big Bang created it some 13.7 billion years ago. (This matter would have cooled and condensed to form the protons and neutrons that make up the matter here today.)

RHIC physicists have measured the temperature of this quark-gluon plasma, finding it reaches around 7.2 trillion degrees Fahrenheit (4 trillion degrees Celsius).

"There are many cool things about this ultra-hot matter," physicist Steven Vigdor, who leads Brookhaven's nuclear and particle physics program, said in a statement. He added that while they expected to reach such super-hot temperatures, "we did not at all anticipate the nearly perfect liquid behavior."

This friction-free liquid occurs at both ends of the temperature spectrum, the researchers said.

"Other physicists have now observed quite similar liquid behavior in trapped atom samples at temperatures near absolute zero, ten million trillion times colder than the quark-gluon plasma we create at RHIC," Vigdor said.

RHIC may not hold onto its hot record for long. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland smashes lead ions together at near light-speed; one experiment there dubbed ALICE (a large ion collider experiment) may be in a position to trump RHIC's record.

"The energy density at the LHC is a factor of three higher than at RHIC," said CERN physicist Despina Hatzifotiadou in a statement. "This translates to a 30-percent increase in absolute temperature compared to the value achieved by RHIC. So I would say that ALICE has the record!"

Not so fast. ALICE researchers have yet to publish an official measure of the temperature for its quark-gluon plasma.

Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.