Recently, according to the New York Times, scientists “whacked a tiny region of space with enough energy to briefly distort the laws of physics.” The temperature generated was 4 trillion degrees Celsius, the hottest temperature ever generated by science. Jim Borgardt, associate professor of physics, explains more:
What exactly took place?
The temperatures were produced in a machine called a particle accelerator that uses extremely powerful magnets to speed up particles to near the speed of light and smash them together. I think this particular event occurred in the Relative Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) on Long Island. — Relative, here, meaning on such a scale as to involve Einstein’s theories of relativity. The reason for this is that atoms are essentially bundles of particles glued together by nuclear forces; smashing them together breaks those forces, so particles like protons, neutrons and electrons can be observed. Smash them together hard enough and even those particles break into smaller pieces – that’s where we get things like quarks.
What were scientists trying to learn from this?
Think of it this way: I come into the room with a glass of water, an ice cube and a steaming kettle, and I say, “Look at these new substances I found,” and you would say “Those are all the same substance,” and I would ask you to prove it. So you would melt the ice or boil the water, etc. In other words, substances that appear very different can be the same. One of the central ideas in theoretical physics is the search for a Unified Theory – a theory of everything. The process of breaking atoms and subatomic parts into their components is a search for evidence that all forces boil down to the same thing. If you heat things to the point where they mimic the conditions of the early universe, you look back on a time where, say, gravity and magnetism are the same thing.
Are these experiments dangerous?
People are always asking, “What if they made a black hole, what if they created massive explosions?” The scale on which these collisions take place are so incredibly small, they are not any danger. For example, the 4 trillion degrees Celsius generated lasted a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second. There is much more energy coming through our atmosphere at any given time.
Where do scientists go from here?
The faster the collisions and the hotter the temperatures, the further we can break down material. In other words, the colliders will keep getting bigger. Actually, one called the Large Hadron Collider is currently under construction. It is over twenty miles long, as compared to the RHIC, which is only 2.4 miles. Inevitably, new answers will lead to new questions.
-Joe Aultman-Moore ’12, Juniata Online Journalist