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August 24th, 2012

Friday physics fun: The charm and beauty of temps in the trillions and the Big Bang

Published on August 24th, 2012 | By: Eileen De Guire

Fermilab physicist explains particle physics concepts using water as an example. Credit: YouTube.

“That sounds like a job for a refractory,” I thought to myself when I came across the phys.org headline, “CERN physicists break record for hottest manmade material.”

Not really, it turns out. The temperatures are too high—about 10 trillion °F (5.5 trillion °C)—and I’m guessing timeframes are so short—that it doesn’t matter.

The temperatures were generated by physicists at CERN in Switzerland who were slamming lead particles together in the Large Hadron Collider to, according to a CERN press release, “recreate for a fleeting moment conditions similar to those of the early universe.”

There is an alphabet soup of teams of physicists at CERN—ALICE, ATLAS and CMS—who are, one way or another, interested in the “primordial soup” of our universe’s earliest moments after the Big Bang, which comes down to heavy ion particle physics (if I’m patching this together correctly).

In our materials science world, we often talk about “first principles” and things like electronic band structure, which are pretty crude concepts compared to the world these physicists dwell within.

For example, did you know that protons and neutrons are composites? They are bound up blobs of quarks and gluons, which are considered to be the basic building blocks of matter.

But even then, there are layers of complexity. For example, there are types of quarks with intriguing names like charm, beauty, up or down. At least some of these have a complement, such as the anti-charm quark.

All these quarks and gluons interact with one another, and understanding this interaction has consumed many physicist-hours. A really good, accessible explanation of the fundamental forces at play in our universe is in this CERN online article, “About the Higgs Boson.” In the video (see above), Fermilab physicist, Don Lincoln, explains the unified theory called the “Standard Model” by comparing the Higgs field to water and the Higgs boson to water molecules. (A Higgs-like boson was observed at CERN just a few weeks ago.)

The world’s leading heavy ion physicists just wrapped up their latest conference, Quark Matter 2012, which takes place about every 18 months. According to the conference website, the purpose of the conference revolves around “studying excited matter at the subatomic level to understand how the constituents dynamically arrange themselves to form ordinary matter, and to understand how this organization emerged from the primordial matter created by the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe.”

The physics of quarks, gluons and their various flavors quickly gets complicated, but somehow it continues to be compelling in the geeky slipstream of the mainstream press. It is human nature to be curious about the origins of ourselves and our world. (Perhaps as part of a supernatural urge to know our time here matters and future generations will be curious about us, in turn?) But part of me wonders, beyond scratching an intellectual itch, what is the point? That is, I hope nobody is thinking about replicating the Big Bang!

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