Sunday 21 January 2018

'Start of the Universe': mini Big Bang recreated

Richard Alleyne

Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider have come the closest ever to re-enacting the beginning of the Universe – a millionth of a second after the Big Bang.

Colliding atomic particles of lead at each other at close to the speed of light, they produced conditions a million times hotter than the centre of the Sun.

The "mini-Big Bangs" were so powerful it is hoped they will come closer to the fundamental building blocks of the Universe – as at these temperatures even atomic particles melt.

It is believed the resulting hot dense "soup" will prove the existence of a whole new state of matter known as the Quark Gluon Plasma.

Quarks are thought to be tiny positive charges which make up protons. They are held together by gluons.

This discovery in turn will lead to the discovery of one of the fundamental forces that bind everything together.

Dr David Evans, a member of the team from the University of Birmingham, said there was a lot of cheering "out of joy and relief".

"We are thrilled with the achievement," he said.

"The collisions generated mini Big Bangs and the highest temperatures and densities ever achieved in an experiment.

"At these temperatures even protons and neutrons, which make up the nuclei of atoms, melt resulting in a hot dense soup of quarks and gluons known as a quark-gluon plasma."

Scientists, including the Birmingham team led by Dr Evans, will now study the particles in the hope of discovering what holds atoms together and gives them their mass they have a created

The collisions, officially started at 10.20am today, were produced by firing lead ions – atoms stripped of their electrons – at 0.999 the speed of light in opposite directions around the LHC's underground tunnel at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, near Geneva.

Flying in opposite directions, the particles were focused into a narrow beam and forced to collide inside the massive ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) detector.

The impacts threw off thousands of particles and generated temperatures of 10 trillion degrees centigrade, as close as we have ever been to reproducing conditions not seen since the Big Bang 13.75 billion years ago.

They were 13 times more powerful than the previous record for ion collisions.

Scientists hope the quark-gluon plasma will allow them to learn more about the Strong Force, one of the four fundamental forces of nature.

"The Strong Force not only binds the nuclei of atoms together but is responsible for 98pc of their mass," said Dr Evans.

"I now look forward to studying a tiny piece of what the Universe was made of just a millionth of a second after the Big Bang."

The ALICE experiment is just one part of the LHC, whose circular beam tunnel runs for 16.7 miles, 328ft below the French/Swiss border.

Up until now scientists have been firing protons around the tunnel which are much lighter than lead ions and so produce less powerful collisions.

ALICE is 53ft high and 85ft across and weighs around 10,000 tons.

The ALICE experiment involves around 1,000 physicists and engineers from 100 institutes in 30 countries.

Britain's contribution includes eight physicists and engineers and seven PhD students from the University of Birmingham.

During the lead ion collisions ALICE will download data at a rate of 1.2 gigabytes per second, producing the equivalent of more than three million CDs-worth of recorded information.

Teams using ALICE detector now have to analyse the results before they can confirm the existence of the new particles and matter.

It is expected to take weeks if not months before any confirmation of the results.

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