CERN’s “Big Bang Machine”: Yields New Insights Into Birth of the Universe

6a00d8341bf7f753ef00e54f8890c08834.jpg “It is truly amazing to be looking, albeit on a microscopic scale, at the conditions and state of matter that existed at the dawn of time.”

Guido Tonelli -CMS Experiment

With less than a month of heavy-ion running, three experiments studying lead ion collisions at the LHC have already brought new insight into matter as it would have existed in the very first instants of the Universe’s life. The ALICE experiment, which is optimised for the study of heavy ions. The first direct observation of a phenomenon known as jet quenching has been made by both the ATLAS and CMS collaborations.

The Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment uses a general-purpose detector to investigate a wide range of physics, including the search for the Higgs boson, extra dimensions, and particles that could make up dark matter. Although it has the same scientific goals as the ATLAS experiment, it uses different technical solutions and design of its detector magnet system to achieve these.

The CMS detector is built around a huge solenoid magnet. This takes the form of a cylindrical coil of superconducting cable that generates a magnetic field of 4 teslas, about 100 000 times that of the Earth. The magnetic field is confined by a steel 'yoke' that forms the bulk of the detector's weight of 12 500 tonnes. An unusual feature of the CMS detector is that instead of being built in-situ underground, like the other giant detectors of the LHC experiments, it was constructed on the surface, before being lowered underground in 15 sections and reassembled.

One of the primary goals of the lead-ion programme at CERN is to create matter as it would have been at the birth of the Universe when the ordinary nuclear matter of which we and the visible universe are made did not exist. The conditions would have been too hot and turbulent for quarks to be bound up by gluons into protons and neutrons, the building blocks of the elements.

Instead, these elementary particles would have roamed freely in a sort of quark gluon plasma. Showing beyond doubt that we can produce and study quark gluon plasma will bring important insights into the evolution of the early Universe, and the nature of the strong force that binds quarks and gluons together into protons, neutrons and ultimately all the nuclei of the periodic table of the elements.

When lead-ions collide in the LHC, they can concentrate enough energy in a tiny volume to produce tiny droplets of this primordial state of matter, which signal their presence by a wide range of measurable signals.

The ALICE findings point to a large increase in the number of particles produced in the collisions compared to previous experiments, and confirm that the much hotter plasma produced at the LHC behaves as a very low viscosity liquid, in keeping with earlier observations from Brookhaven’s RHIC collider. Taken together, these results have already ruled out some theories about how the primordial Universe behaved.
“With nuclear collisions, the LHC has become a fantastic 'Big Bang' machine,” said ALICE spokesperson Jürgen Schukraft. “In some respects, the quark-gluon matter looks familiar, still the ideal liquid seen at RHIC, but we’re also starting to see glimpses of something new.”

Both the ATLAS and CMS experiments have very powerful and hermetic energy measuring capability, which allows them to measure jets of particles that emerge from collisions. Jets are formed as the basic constituents of nuclear matter, quarks and gluons, fly away from the collision point. In proton collisions, jets usually appear in pairs, emerging back to back. However, in heavy ion collisions the jets interact in the tumultuous conditions of the hot dense medium. This leads to a very characteristic signal, known as jet quenching, in which the energy of the jets can be severely degraded, signalling interactions with the medium more intense than ever seen before. Jet quenching is a powerful tool for studying the behaviour of the plasma in detail.

“ATLAS is the first experiment to report direct observation of jet quenching,” said ATLAS Spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti. “The excellent capabilities of ATLAS to determine jet energies enabled us to observe a striking imbalance in energies of pairs of jets, where one jet is almost completely absorbed by the medium."

 “Since the very first days of lead-ion collisions the quenching of jets appeared in our data while other striking features, like the observation of Z particles, never seen before in heavy-ion collisions, are under investigation. The challenge is now to put together all possible studies that could lead us to a much better understanding of the properties of this new, extraordinary state of matter," said said Guido Tonelli.

The ATLAS and CMS measurements herald a new era in the use of jets to probe the quark gluon plasma. Future jet quenching and other measurements from the three LHC experiments will provide powerful insight into the properties of the primordial plasma and the interactions among its quarks and gluons.
With data taking continuing for over one more week, and the LHC already having delivered the programmed amount of data for 2010, the heavy-ion community at the LHC is looking forward to further analysing their data, which will greatly contribute to the emergence of a more complete model of quark gluon plasma, and consequently the very early Universe.

Casey Kazan via CERN

"The Galaxy" in Your Inbox, Free, Daily