Archives For particle physics

alpha centauri bb

Carbon is a great element for kick-starting life thanks to its uncanny ability to form reactive, but still stable molecules perfect for creating proteins, amino acids, and even the backbone of DNA and RNA, or their functional equivalents. And yet, according to those who argue that the reason we exist is that the universe is somehow fine-tuned for us, or that life exists as a random, one in a trillion chance, it shouldn’t even be here. You see, when the first stars started fusing hydrogen into helium-4 deep in their searing cores, the resulting helium atoms should have combined into beryllium-8 which decays so quickly that there should have been virtually no chance for another helium atom to combine with it to form carbon-12, which accounts for 98.9% of all carbon in the known universe and makes life possible. According to astronomer Fred Hoyle, whose misuse of the anthropic principle has been used to justify many an anti-evolutionary screed, since carbon based life exists, there must be a mechanism by which this beryllium bottleneck is resolved and the clue to this mechanism must lie in the conditions under which the star fuses helium.

You see, when atoms fuse into a new element, the newly formed nucleus has to be at one of its natural, stable energy levels, otherwise the combination of the protons’ and neutrons’ energies, as well as the energy of their kinetic motion will prevent the fusion. Hoyle’s insight was than any new carbon atom must have had a resonance with the process by which a beryllium and helium atom would combine, which would exert just enough energy to slow down the decay rate for the reaction with a passing helium-4 atom to happen, so the natural energy level of the result would sustain a stable carbon-12 nucleus. Imagine rolling magnetic spheres down a hill, and as these magnets roll, they collide. Some will hit each other with just enough energy to keep rolling as a single unit and absorb new spheres they run into, others combine, then break apart, or just roll on their own. The angle, the force of impact, and the speed and masses of the spheres all have to be right for them to join, and when they do, they’ll have to stay that way long enough to settle down. This is quantum resonance in a nutshell, and it’s what made carbon-12 possible.

But while this is all well and good, especially for us carbon based lifeforms, where does Hoyle’s discovery leave us in regards to the question of whether the universe was fine-tuned for life? If we assume that only carbon based life is possible, and that the only life that could exist is what exists today, the argument makes sense. However those assumptions don’t. Even if there was no quantum resonance between helium-4, beryllium-8, and carbon-12 in the earliest stars from which the first atoms of organic molecules were spawned, the first stars were massive and it’s a reasonable guess that when they went supernova, they would have created carbon, silicon, and metals like aluminium and titanium. All four elements can be useful in creating molecules which can form the chemical backbones of living organisms. In fact, it’s entirely possible that we could one day find alien life based on silicon and that in some corner of the galaxy there are microbes with genomes wound around a titanium scaffold. Life does not have to exist as we know it, and only as we know it. We didn’t have to exist either, it’s just lucky for us that we did.

When creationists try to come up with the probability that life exactly the way we understand, or have at least observed to exist, came out the way it has, against all other probabilities, they are bound to get ridiculous odds against us being here. But what they’re really doing is calculating a probability of a reaction for reaction, mutation for mutation, event for event, repeat of the entire history of life on Earth, all 4 billion years of it, based on the self-absorbed and faulty assumption that because we’re here, there must a reason why that’s the case. The idea that there’s no real predisposition towards modern humans evolving in North Africa, or that life could exist if there’s no abundant carbon-12 to help bind its molecules is just something they cannot accept because the notion that our universe created us by accident and we can be gone in the blink of a cosmic eye to be replaced by something unlike ourselves in every way, is just too scary for them. They simply don’t know how to deal with not feeling like they are somehow special or that nature isn’t really interested in whether they exist or not, just like it hadn’t for at least 13.8 billion years…

axion model

Not that long ago, I wrote an open letter to the Standard Model, the theoretical, in the scientific sense of the word, framework that describes the structure and behavior of particles that make up the universe as we know it. While this letter confirmed many of is successes, especially with the confirmation of the Higgs boson, it referred to the need for it to somehow be broken for the world of physics to move forward, citing knowledge of something that lay beyond it. Considering that it was a pretty vague reference, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit it and elaborate as to why we need something beyond the Standard Model to explain the universe. Yes, parts of the problem have to do with the transition between quantum and classical states which we are still trying to understand, but the bigger problem is the vast chasm between the masses of each and every particle covered by the model and the mass associated with gravity taking over from the quantum world and responsible for the cosmos as we know it on a macro scale.

So why is the Higgs some 20 orders of magnitude too light to help explain the gap between the behavior of quantum particles and the odd gravitational entities that we’re pretty sure make up the fabric of space and time? Well, the answer to that is that we really don’t know. There are a few ideas, one in vogue right now gives new life to a nearly 40 year old hypothesis of a particle known as an axion. The thought is that low mass particles with no charge just nudged the mass of the Higgs into what it is today during the period of extremely rapid inflation right after the Big Bang, creating the gap we see today, rather than holding on to the idea that the Higgs came to exist at its current mass of 125 GeV and hasn’t gained or lost those 5 vanity giga-electron volts those health and fitness magazines for subatomic particles are obsessed with. A field of axions could slightly warp space and time, making all sorts of subtle changes that cumulatively have a big effect on the universe,which also makes them great candidates for dark matter.

All right, so people have been predicting the existence of axions for decades and they seem to fill out so many blank spots in cosmology so well that they might be the next biggest thing in all of physics. But do they actually exist? Well, they might. We think some may have been found in anomalous X-ray emissions from the sun, though not every expert agrees, and there are a few experiments hunting for stronger evidence of them. Should we find unequivocal proof that they exist just as the equations predict they should, with the right mass and charge, one could argue you would have a discovery even bigger than that of the Higgs because it solves three massive problems in cosmology and quantum mechanics in one swoop. But until we do, we’re still stuck with the alarming thought that after the LHC ramps up to full power, it wouldn’t show us a new particle or evidence of new physics, and future colliders would never have the oomph to cover the enormous void between Standard Model and gravitational particles. And this is why it would be so great if we detect axions or the LHC manages to break particle physics as we know it…

atom

Dear Standard Model, we need to talk. Now, now, don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not that you are not doing your job well, in fact the exact opposite is what we want to address. It may sound odd that a number of scientists are getting frustrated when they can’t seem to break you, but look at the situation from their angle. For physics to take a huge leap forward, it needs to outgrow you, much like general relativity was the next iteration of Newtonian physics, and like neo-Darwinian synthesis combined genetics and natural selection for evolutionary research to advance in new and meaningful directions. But before we can start working on your eventual replacement, we’ll need to discover your shortfalls, something outside of your predictive power. And right now, the sad truth is that we can’t. We’re desperately stuck and are looking for a way out.

The last attempt even used particles with exotic quark alignments, neutral B mesons, to trigger the decay of the heavy top quark into a muon/anti-muon pair, or a matter/anti-matter pair with an electron’s husky cousins. The idea was to smash them and show enough such pairs forming out of the debris to exceed your limit on them. Sadly, that refused to happen. Not only were the decays in ranges described by you, but so much within them that we can’t even hint at possibly breaking you with another attempt. All hopes are on the huge power boost to the Large Hadron Collider to maybe, just maybe, create a decay path or a particle debris cloud you can’t explain, giving scientists a peek at what lies beyond the world in your framework, and possible solutions to the paradoxes and mysteries that still exist. Although you’re supremely helpful and were one of the biggest scientific triumphs of the last century, now you’re actually holding us back.

Again, this isn’t a grudge. We like you and we’ll still have work for you. But science can’t simply coast on what it has already accomplished, it must find answers to questions that still loom long after a discovery is made, or better yet, introduced by a discovery. Regardless of what all those misguided postmodernist sophists preach, science thrives on disproving itself and finding out an axiom is actually wrong or woefully incomplete. Overthrowing and improving existing theories or introducing brand new ones is how we advance and what wins Nobel Prizes. And we won’t hold ourselves down just because you won’t break today or even tomorrow. There will be a day we will pass your limitations as the media across the world will declare that the hunt for your future iteration is now on. Because you see, we know there has to be something more laying beneath you, we know there has to so we can explain the anomalies with which bleeding edge work has to be peppered. And we will break you to find it. Nothing personal. It’s just science.

cosmic mesh

Dark matter is a substance that makes up nearly all mass in the universe, but decades after we discovered it, all we have are indirect measurements which show us that it’s there in very large amounts, forming galactic halos, but ultimately, little else. It doesn’t seem to interact with any of the stuff that makes stars, dust, and planets, it emits or reflects no radiation, and this utter lack of interesting properties we could study leads to much wailing and gnashing of teeth on physics blogs and forums, wondering if it even exists. But there might finally be a glimmer of light in the study of dark matter because there’s now evidence that it can interact with itself and matches at least one theoretical behavior. While that doesn’t sound like much, it’s actually a pretty big deal because it narrows down the possible culprits and shows that we can design some way to catch particles exhibiting this behavior to figure out this mystery once and for all. Hopefully.

Last year, a team of researchers was examining the Bullet Cluster, which is actually two galaxy clusters undergoing a series of violent collisions, to try and detect dark matter interactions and figure out to what, if anything other than gravity, dark matter responds. The observations were not exactly conclusive, but they didn’t completely rule out dark matter particles colliding, just set a bound in which they can be expected to collide. Armed with this data, the same team tried to catch a glimpse of interacting dark matter particles in a cluster of just four galaxies, Abell 3827, hoping to get more detail how their galactic halos behave during tidal stripping events. Despite sounding like something like something one galaxy does for another to keep things interesting and relieve a little stress, it’s actually when galaxies shed stars, gas, dust, and dark matter to larger galaxies which exert powerful tidal forces on them across millions of light years.

Now, during tidal stripping, there’s a lag between matter being absorbed into a new galaxy and more matter coming in from the old galaxy because as clouds of dust and gas collide, they heat up, producing radiation, and create drag that pushes incoming material back. One inconclusive observation says it may have detected odd gamma ray flares that could be dark matter colliding during this phenomenon, but since no others have, some cosmologists concluded that it means that dark matter doesn’t interact with itself. But the team observing Abell 3827 found the tell tale signs of a significant lag in dark matter halos with a rate of interaction which fell neatly into their previous results. This means that dark matter particles are colliding, creating shockwaves and a detectable lag between absorbed and incoming clouds. In fact this lag can be up to 5,000 light years which isn’t much on a galactic scale, but definitely big enough that it’s unlikely to be just a fluke, or a random artifact in the data. Finally, we know something new about dark matter!

Of course we still don’t know what it really is, but we can now rule out a whole host of extremely exotic candidates which can’t interact with each other, and start designing detectors to seek out even more such events to confirm the observation and gather more data. With each new piece of information we tease out, we can eliminate more and more culprits until can actually design a way to capture dark matter itself. It may take decades more until we get to that point, but like a punishing, extremely difficult game can give you immense satisfaction when you finally manage to figure out the rules and advance, so can a profound and difficult to solve mystery like finding out what dark matter really is. Maybe it will be nothing groundbreaking in the end, and maybe it won’t change anything we think we know about the universe, but just the fact that we persisted, observed, experimented, theorized, and then observed some more to figure it out should make us a little more proud of our species in general for not giving up on a very difficult question.

See: Harvey, D., et al (2015). The nongravitational interactions of dark matter in colliding galaxy clusters Science, 347 (6229), 1462-1465 DOI: 10.1126/science.1261381

Massey, R., et al. (2015). The behavior of dark matter associated with bright cluster galaxies in the core of Abell 3827 MNRA, 449 (4), 3393-3406 DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stv467

[ illustration by AYM Creations / Ali Yaser ]

particle decay at the lhc

Once upon a time, we looked at an explanation for dark matter involving a theory about how all matter around us could decay over 6.6 × 10^33 years and noted that there’s a controversy as to whether protons actually decay. To help settle this, astronomers took advantage of the fact that telescopes are relativistic time machines, and peered through them at a galaxy known as PKS 1830-211 — a name only a scientist could love — that just so happens to be a gravitational lens allowing us to see some 7 billion years back. To be a bit more precise, it lets us look at clouds of alcohol molecules formed eons ago in deep space and compare their spectrum to that of booze analyzed in a lab right here on Earth. Don’t worry, no hard liquor was harmed in the process as the alcohol in question is methanol, the kind used in fuel and manufacturing, and which causes blindness if ingested, not the ethanol in which we can indulge. But even if no buzz was killed for the sake of science, what exactly does looking at the light spectra of alcohol tell us about how our universe formed and its possible fate many quadrillions of years from now?

Well, the spectrum of a molecule depends on μ, the ratio of proton to hydrogen mass. That’s an extremely important metric because it lets us measure the strong force, one of the fundamental interactions of matter as we know it responsible for building atomic nuclei. Because the masses involved are created by interactions of elementary particles representing the strong force, if μ falls below or exceeds 1,836.15267245(75) and the difference is reproducibly recorded, we can say that something changed the effect of this fundamental force on matter. Hence, if the 7 billion year old methanol emits an appreciably different spectrum from methanol we create today, this would mean that one of the fundamental forces has changed as the universe grew and matter is decaying on cosmic time scales. Lucky for us, turns out that atoms are very much stable since the spectrum of methanol was for all intents and purposes identical over 7 billion years, which is just over half of the way back to the Big Bang itself.

This tells us a couple of things about the fate of the universe. First is that the Standard Model of physics is still accurate and can make viable predictions about atomic structure and decay. The second is that matter will continue to be matter at the end of the universe or decays so slowly it would only matter on time scales far exceeding the lifetimes of supermassive black holes. Finally, it allows us to rule out overly exotic explanations for the origins of dark matter involving decay of particular subatomic elements or quirky behavior of the strong force since these results match a number of previous experiments designed to find out the same thing. In a universe flying apart, churning with explosions, collisions, and radiation, it’s nice to know that you can rely on matter that makes you and the planet on which you live isn’t also slowly decaying on you like a ticking cosmic time bomb. And while space may be out to get you through GRBs, asteroids, and huge galactic train wrecks, it will at least spare the very fabric of your existence.

See: Bagdonaite, et. al. (2012). A stringent limit on a drifting proton-to-electron mass ratio from alcohol in the early universe Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1224898

cern_detector_600

Apologies for the long silence but it looks like life and work has been interfering with the blogging. Oh well, all yours truly can do is grin and bear it, and take a moment when he can to write a post. Luckily for me, there’s a really big event that makes for excellent post fodder; the apparent discovery of the Higgs boson, the linchpin of mass for all known matter in the universe. The short version of all the press releases boils down to a bump in particle decay data showing a very heavy particle fitting right in the predicted range of masses and lifespan for the long-sought Higgs, a bump which hasn’t just been detected at the LHC, but replicated by the Tevatron with a lesser but still significant degree of certainty, indicating that this time, we’re really on to something huge and really heavy. Yes, pun intended. Of course not having a Higgs lurking in the data would make things exciting, but with it finally making a brief appearance means that the Standard Model of particle physics is as airtight as it could possibly be from a scientific standpoint and we can now proceed to study the boson in more depth.

So what can we find out when we study this boson? Well, by lucky coincidence, Just as we’re figuring out that our ides of how the universe works are along the right path, astrophysicists found a filament of dark matter shaping galaxy nodes and a thorough knowledge of the Higgs could provide us with clues about the ultimate makeup and fate of the cosmos. We may also study how the Higgs affects quantum particles to answer a few of our pressing questions about quantum mechanics. Practical applications like creating a relativistic rocket by canceling out the Higgs boson’s effects on matter with a finely calibrated device, allowing our spacecraft to cross the vast distances between stars within years rather than eons, are probably too far fetched at this point to consider seriously. However, who knows what we could accomplish when we understand the origins of all mass? That’s the fun of science and technology. You never know what you can discover or create until you set your mind to it and try. The current confirmation of the Higgs shows us how far particle physics has come in a century; from barely being able to define atoms, it can now define and model entire particle zoos.

And which physics keeps studying the Higgs, I hope that the media will quickly forget the bosons’ unfortunate nickname since calling it The God Particle misrepresents Leon Lederman’s original intention to convey how hard it was to find the boson despite its perfect fit into every other experiment and equation, and by letting his publisher change his phrase “the goddamned particle” into a pseudo-religious euphemism he earned a lot of cold stares from his fellow scientists. Yes, it is a critically important particle and yes, it has very profound effects on matter as we know it, but it has nothing to do with theology or a deity, and ultimately, all the particles defined by the Standard Model are important because they all play a role in the makeup of our universe. To go out of your way to pin the responsibility for making the cosmos as it is on a single particle and endow it with a highly misleading supernatural epithet just because it resonates with the faithful, it just plain wrong. We need to name it in a way that gives credit to Peter Higgs’ lifetime of work since it was his labor that made the LHC’s discovery possible and enabled us to keep extending the Standard Model to the dawn of the cosmos itself.

Say you need to communicate not just with someone or something far away, but someone or something very, very deep underground, or underwater, or on the other side of a planet. You could create satellite relays which will bounce the signal around to get to your target wherever it is in space, but that requires a lot of money and some very delicate arranging and aligning so the satellites can see each other. And when you need to send a message through water or rock, no satellite will help you there. The signal will just dissipate to nothing before reaching the receiver or slow down to the point where you’d have to transmit a simple message for hours just to make sure the other party can piece it together. What to do, what to do? How about just sending out a beam of neutrinos which will easily travel through solid objects and help ensure high fidelity where other signals will not reach or become totally impractical to use? A team of physicists at FermiLab just so happened to test how well this idea would work and managed to transmit a brief binary message through almost 780 feet of rock at an impressive 99% accuracy rate. Neat, huh? Definitely. But there are some major tradeoffs involved…

First off, if you want to download a movie or watch Netflix underground with your new neutrino wi-fi, you will be sorely disappointed since their more or less average transfer rate was 0.1 bits per second, peaking at a very much not blistering 2.2 bits per second. It’s not that the beam can’t carry more data, it’s that neutrinos interact so rarely with normal matter that this is what could be detected from the 2.5 × 10^14 particles sent. Speaking of detecting the messages sent with neutrino beams, if you want to use a neutrino wi-fi, you’d need a very big, very precisely calibrated modem that weighs around 170 tons, which would make it rather difficult to stuff in a backpack or launch into space for practical use. Finally, you need a very, very powerful beam to send all these neutrinos and aim it directly at your target, much the same way laser communication would work. Certainly, it should be possible to broadcast waves of neutrinos across a wide area in pulses, each pulse representing a binary symbol, but as the neutrinos disperse, they would become a lot harder to detect and that average data rate cited above would plummet by at least an order of magnitude if not two. And if you’re already using a very powerful neutrino beam with which it would still take almost five and a half days to download the illustration I used for this post, it’s very hard to imagine that a wide area broadcast would perform comparably.

But all that said, this is just a proof of concept and the whole point was to show that neutrino beams really can transmit data in a scenario where they’re needed to do just that. We shouldn’t expect this test to reach any real or useful data rate. However, it’s difficult to overlook the problems with detecting these neutrinos because any sort of reliable detection would not only involve a massive detector but hiding it somewhere only neutrinos will pass without any difficulty. Suddenly a satellite array looks like a much more practical solution since satellites be able to provide much faster data exchange, won’t have to accommodate enormous internal structures, and be buried underground or sink deep underwater to do their work. Unless we can come up with lightweight but accurate neutrino detectors, this proof of concept is very likely to remain just that, and given the difficulty in the amount of effort necessary to detect something that only rarely and very weakly interacts with matter, it’s not an easy task to put it mildly. At least we know it can actually be done and have a very good use for new detectors right away, thinking out of the box to harness exotic particles for our data needs. Even if we can get something close to a slow dial-up connection going, that would already be more than enough to use in emergencies and scenarios in which we need to talk with the outside world in very challenging and distant environments and a few brief words sent every once in a while would definitely make a real difference.

See: Stancil D., et al. (2012). Demonstration of communication using neutrinos Phys Let A arXiv: 1203.2847v1

Few things in particle physics seem to be as elusive as the Higgs boson. After many years of smashing a lot of particles, we’ve been able to narrow its probable mass down to about 125 GeV, about five times less than predicted by a number of scientists at the beginning of the search. With CERN staying vague about whether it got even a smidgeon closer to finally finding the particle and its potential habitat getting smaller and smaller, so much so that at this point one starts to wonder if it’s actually too light to impart mass all by itself, maybe we should start considering a future without the boson as the linchpin of mass. What if it’s really not so much the definitive result of the standard model, but actually a placeholder for something far more complex? What if we have to look at the data collected by the LHC again, going over with a fine-tooth comb for anything anomalous or run new experiments which make sure that we detected every but of subatomic shrapnel blasting out of the high energy collision? Far from marking the LHC a failure, it would actually greatly boost its importance…

Here’s an important thing to keep in mind. An unfortunate truth with which scientists are often faced is that the public at large has been conditioned that every project has two possible outcomes. You set out to find or build something and you either succeed or fail. Projects are evaluated for how well they achieve a goal, not how the knowledge gained through attempting them can be applied elsewhere. Yet, in the research world, failure isn’t only an option, but sometimes, a very desirable one because the post-mortem of your attempt to prove a new hypothesis or test an old one can yield new ideas and new approaches. Patent offices are filled with all sorts of innovations that came from accidents, failures, or discarded efforts. Who cares if you didn’t prove that some plant in a distant rainforest can be used as an ingredient in a moisturizing skin cream if it turns out to have an aggressive effect against melanoma? Failure to create an artificial mind plagues the AI field, and yet we make complex signal processing algorithms and our questions have leaked over into fascinating new research into how the human brain actually works. We didn’t find the Higgs boson? Too bad, so sad. But now we have one very bizarre and complex mystery on the origins of mass and a few trillion data points to crunch.

All right, so if there’s no Higgs boson, what else could there be? Well, there’s a myriad of ideas out there and they range from the incredibly exotic, to hinting at some unification between quantum mechanics and our run of the mill standard model particles. In one scenario from a set of theories known as Technicolor Models, an interaction between W and Z bosons breaks symmetry and generates mass. This approach relies on what’s known as confinement, the idea that quarks are tied to each other by charges that prompt them to appear as jets of particles, clumping together into baryons and mesons, or ordinary particles and quark-anti-quark pairs in plain English. Since this symmetry breaks at around 250 GeV, roughly twice the new upper bound set for a wild Higgs to appear out of the particle showers, it would mean that we’ve already went below the point where the appearance of the said wild Higgs boson would falsify this hypothesis. It also gives us a new target area for further study should the Higgs fail to materialize completely, though how to evaluate confinement at such a small scale is something best left for a professional physicist to consider since the equations involved aren’t for the faint of heart to put it mildly, and the mechanics of the experiment are nothing to take lightly either.

But despite the fact that physics could jettison the Higgs if it fails to appear, one prominent tehologian across the pond adopted the search for the boson as his justification for belief in a deity, declaring that physics is filled with esoteric and exotic proposals like dark matter and dark energy, posits ideas that cannot be proven, and believes that the Higgs exists solely because it’s necessary to make their equations work. Of course our theologian in question, Alister McGrath, is woefully mistaken on all counts. If physicists really believed that the universe contains the Higgs boson in the same way theists believe in a deity, they wouldn’t build the LHC in a very complex and expensive attempt to prove whether it exists, and as pointed out above, there are other ways of making the standard model work on paper. Rather than simply looking to confirm their beliefs, scientists at the CERN labs are putting their theories to the test, and they’ll move on should they fail to summon the Higgs, rather than doing the same thing as McGrath; shrugging and declaring that some things just can’t be proven, but since the math works, then it must be correct and the Higgs boson must therefore exist because it makes the math work, using a textbook example of circular logic. Though explaining why they’re moving on would be an uphill fight against those stuck in a very black and white, I-want-to-believe kind of mindset…

Heat is a relative term to those of us living on this planet. The highest natural temperature we’ve recorded is a downright uncomfortable 57.8 °C recorded in Libya, while the coldest is what the vast majority of us would call a bone-chilling -89.7 °C at Antarctica’s Vostok Station. In the lab, however, scientists can take temperatures to otherworldly extremes. On the cold end of the scale, they’ve come very close to absolute zero, a temperature at which entropy itself seems to stop and thought to be nearly impossible to happen naturally. But when you start dealing with heat, you can crank things up a lot more than a few hundred degrees in the desired direction and keep it up until matter itself starts to break down under the extreme conditions. And amazingly, the RHIC, the original doomsday atom-smasher, managed to push beyond that limit during a number of collisions.

One important thing to keep in mind is that the RHIC didn’t just reach the limits of known physics in one event, but instead, the measurements came as a result of crunching data gathered during years of collisions. So what was the record breaking temperature achieved in the atom smasher? Roughly 4 trillion degrees, close to twice the theoretical melting point of protons and neutrons, and several thousand times hotter than the core of a Type II supernova. Matter as we know it can’t exist in these conditions. Instead, we get a soup of quarks and gluons which flow like a frictionless liquid with zero viscosity. And it’s from this searing quark-gluon soup that the universe is thought to have emerged as the newly carved out cosmos expanded and cooled enough for baryogenesis to take place. Of course as with almost all research at the frontier of our knowledge, there were some surprises, mainly in the behavior of the elementary particles in this highly energetic state as was noted by Professor Steven Vigdor, who oversees the RHIC’s research program.

The temperature inferred from these new measurements at RHIC is considerably higher than the long-established maximum possible temperature attainable without the liberation of quarks and gluons from their normal confinement inside individual protons and neutrons. However, quarks and gluons in the matter we see at RHIC behave much more cooperatively than the independent particles initially predicted for QGP [or Quark-Gluon Plasma].

This certainly sets the bar for the researchers at LHC who could achieve even higher temperatures and come even closer to replicating the theoretical quark-gluon plasma which filled the early universe after the Big Bang. On another note, there’s money to be made from these experiments and scientists at Brookhaven patented a few potential commercial uses for what they expect to find from these energetic events, targeting energy efficiency and possibly potential applications for computing and electronics.

Quarks spin in different directions and understanding how and why they do so can help scientists harness the power. It may be possible to replicate this symmetrical spin in graphene, for example, said [RHIC theorist] Dmitri Kharzeev. Graphene is a so-called nanomaterial that scientists believe may replace silicon in super-fast and super-small devices.

So not only can we learn about the Big Bang and high energy physics, but we might get more efficient TVs and cameras, as well as faster computers. This is why when people ask me what’s the benefit of spending a few billion on smashing atoms, I always say that just because the applications of the science they do aren’t really obvious at first glance, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t any. After all, without a particle collider in the 1980s, it’s very likely that you wouldn’t be reading this blog, or any other science blog for that matter since the World Wide Web wouldn’t be around, or was limited to a very small group of people as it was before Tim Bernes Lee had an idea to use the internet to help physicists collaborate on their research. And there was also a matter of refining oncology treatments which come from a better understanding of how to work with particle beams…

[ illustration by Jean Didier ]

Good news everybody. The LHC is up and running and already started colliding particles, thought they’re not as powerful as the collider can do when its revved up to full speed, just a measly 900 GeV. Now, I say measly not to be funny but because that’s slightly less than the energy of a lazy mosquito casually flying through the air, probably while doing the insect equivalent of yawning. And yet, because of all the impressive prefixes that have been attached to the energies to be produced by CERN’s experiments, some people are warning us of a potential particle of strange matter coalescing during a particularly powerful collision and changing everything around it into more copies of itself until the entire planet becomes a quivering ball of compact strange matter.

strange matter

Think of it as the death by micro black hole scenario, but with an exotic particle cast in the role of the insidious subatomic culprit. According to the idea, several collisions create stable strangelets, elementary particles of a substance thought by some physicists to live in the core of a neutron star. Strangelets are hadrons, much like protons and neutrons. However, instead of being made up of up quarks and down quarks like the matter we all know and love, it contains strange quarks. And unlike the aforementioned micro black holes which would evaporate in an instant, strangelets are supposed to be extremely stable and persist long enough to interact with nearby atomic nuclei, triggering protons and neutrons to rapidly decay into more strange matter. The new batch of strangelets will start to convert matter around itself into even more strange matter, and so on and so forth until the whole planet is just a dense, hot sphere of exotic particles in a classic ice-nine event.

Wait a second. Why does all this sound so familiar? Ah yes, the same worries were raised when the original doomsday collider, the RHIC, was built and I remember vivid animations showing a quark-gluon plasma that shoots out as two hadrons collide at 99.7% the speed of light, spawning a sinister black ooze referred to as a strangelet by the narrators. In reality, according to a paper written as the RHIC was in its planning stages by a quartet of physicists from Europe and the U.S., certain collisions would allow strangelets to form and gain a negative charge before they decay in just a fraction of a second. Of course rather than worry about the planet’s potential fate, the authors urge future detection systems of massive particle colliders to try and detect strange matter which should fall within certain energy and life expectancy parameters. After nearly a decade of work at the RHIC, no strangelets have been announced and as we can see, our planet is still here. As work began on the much more powerful LHC, the doomsday theories of the RHIC era were simply recycled by substituting an acronym and arguing that at higher energies, the fears are now justified.

However, remember when we translated 900 GeV into real world terms? Well, the maximum planned energy levels of the LHC at 7 TeV per beam isn’t exactly all that much energy either. In fact, it’s like flinging an ant at a little under two miles an hour at another ant in a similar predicament. The insects would probably just hit each other, get up, release a few choice chemical signals about the humans who turned them into projectiles, and go on their merry way. On a subatomic level, the end result would be a very violent and messy collision which throws out a stream of short lived particles that physicists will analyze to see if the interactions between these tiny bits of matter and their decay times match the mathematical models. And remember that most particles created this way have extremely low masses in the macro world and don’t stick around for long. Considering that even the longest lived strangelets hypothesized to appear in a relativistic ion collision would decay about 500 times faster than the blink of an eye, or 10^-5 seconds, there’s not a whole lot a damage they can do.

Even if scientists are wrong and by an amazing feat of physics strangelets don’t decay, we’re talking about an infinitesimal particle separated from atoms it can influence by distances billions of times greater than its own diameter. It would take ages to convert enough mass to even register at a level we would notice. This may be one of the reasons why the highly energetic collisions between atmospheric particles and cosmic rays which happen all the time right above our heads haven’t produced enough strangelets to turn our planet into a hyper- dense soup of searing hot strange matter. The other reason? The strange matter hypothesis might be wrong and strangelets don’t form in colliders due to the way quark-gluon plasmas behave…

See: Schaffner-Bielich, J., Greiner, C., Diener, A., & Stöcker, H. (1997). Detectability of strange matter in heavy ion experiments Physical Review C, 55 (6), 3038-3046 DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevC.55.3038