For the first split second after the Big Bang, the universe was nothing but an extremely hot “soup” of quarks and gluons — subatomic particles that would become the building blocks of protons and neutrons. Now, 13.8 billion years later, scientists have re-created this primordial soup in a laboratory.
Using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, physicists generated tiny drops of this quark-gluon plasma by smashing together different combinations of protons and neutrons. During these crashes, the quarks and gluons that made up the protons and neutrons broke free and behaved as a liquid, the researchers found.
Depending on which combination of particles the researchers smashed together, the tiny, liquid-like globs of plasma formed one of three distinct geometric shapes: circles, ellipses or triangles. [Images: Peering Back to the Big Bang & Early Universe]
“Our experimental result has brought us much closer to answering the question of what is the smallest amount of early universe matter that can exist,” Jamie Nagle, a physicist at the University of Colorado Boulder who participated in the study, said in a statement.
Quark-gluon plasmas were first created at Brookhaven in 2000, when researchers smashed together the nuclei of gold atoms. Then, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva defied expectations when they created the plasma by smashing two protons together. “That was surprising because most scientists assumed that lone protons could not deliver enough energy to make anything that could flow like a fluid,” UC Boulder officials said in the statement.