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Physicists Measure Material Hotter Than the Sun

Posted By Vanderbilt Magazine On April 7, 2010 @ 11:54 am In Bright Ideas, Spring 2010 | No Comments

Greene, MacGuire, and Velko

Greene, Maguire, and Velkovska

It’s the hottest temperature ever achieved in a laboratory: 250,000 times hotter than the heart of the sun. Three Vanderbilt physicists are members of the scientific team that has reported creating an exotic state of matter with a temperature of 4 trillion degrees Celsius. The new temperature measurement has strengthened the physicists’ conviction that they have managed to recreate the quark-gluon plasma (QGP), a state of matter that may have existed fractions of seconds after the Big Bang.

Scientists produced this super-heated state of matter by accelerating gold nuclei to nearly the speed of light in opposite directions and then colliding them. Their work took place in the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory, the largest particle accelerator in the world dedicated to nuclear physics research.

The Vanderbilt scientists involved are Victoria Greene, professor of physics and executive dean in the College of Arts and Science; Charles Maguire, professor of physics; and Julia Velkovska, associate professor of physics. For the past nine years, they have played a key role in the design and operation of PHENIX, the largest of the four detectors positioned around the accelerator’s 2.4-mile circumference. The new results were announced Feb. 15 at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society in New York.

“The temperature measurement was made at PHENIX by measuring the photons, the light particles, that were created with the plasma and escaped without interacting with other particles,” says Greene. Scientists figured out a way to separate the primordial photons from those coming from more mundane sources by comparing the photons produced in the collisions of the gold nuclei with those produced in simple collisions between two protons.

RHIC scientists don’t know the exact temperature at which the protons and neutrons in atoms “melt” into their constituent parts, quarks and gluons. But they do think it is considerably below 4 trillion degrees. The new measurement increases their confidence that the matter they are creating and studying is indeed the QGP.

Their observations of the most primordial of all primordial soups is improving scientists’ understanding of the “strong force,” the force that acts within the nucleus of the atom and holds it together. Originally, they had predicted that the QGP would act like a gas, with all the particles moving independently. They were surprised to find that the quarks appear to be bound together in a way similar to the molecules in a liquid. This is forcing theoreticians back to their drawing boards.

Simulation of subatomic  particles that are created when gold  nuclei collide in the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.

Simulation of subatomic particles that are created when gold nuclei collide in the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.

Increased knowledge about the nature of the QGP can also improve cosmologists’ understanding of the origin of the universe. For the first few microseconds after the Big Bang, cosmologists calculate that temperatures were so hot that a quark-gluon plasma should have formed. However, the universe immediately began to expand and cool. As it cooled below the melting point of protons and neutrons, these particles began forming much like rain drops condensing out of steam.

Brookhaven officials have announced that they will be upgrading RHIC during the next five years to get better measurements of the QGP’s temperature, viscosity and other basic properties. Greene, Maguire and Velkovska continue to participate in the RHIC collaboration and have also joined a scientific team using one of the detectors on the new Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, operated by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. Here they hope to study the behavior of the quark-gluon plasma at even more extreme temperatures. They are also creating a control room at Vanderbilt where they can monitor the quality of the data and analyze results in near real time.

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