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December 7, 2010

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Big Bang Poured Out "Liquid" Universe, Atom Smasher Hints

By Ker Than
From National Geographic News

Pinhead-size drop would have had same mass as Egypt's pyramids, expert says.

In the immediate aftermath of the big bang, the universe behaved like a very dense, superhot liquid, according to data from the most powerful atom-smashing experiment yet performed.

Physicists recently re-created the conditions of the big bang using the ALICE detector in the Large Hadron Collider (pictures) near Geneva, Switzerland. The scientists smashed together lead ions—atoms of lead that had been stripped of their electrons—at nearly the speed of light.

The experiment successfully created a tiny "subatomic volume" of a primordial state of matter known as a quark-gluon plasma. This exotic substance is thought to have existed only briefly in the early universe.

The plasma is made of subatomic particles called quarks and gluons. Quarks are the elementary building blocks of positively charged protons and neutral neutrons, which make up the cores of atoms. Gluons are particles that "glue" quarks together using what's called the strong force.

In normal matter, quarks and gluons exist as tightly bound bundles. (Related: "Strange Particle Created; May Rewrite How Matter's Made.")

Previous experiments had shown that at extremely high temperatures, the strong force weakens and quarks and gluons can't join. Some theories had therefore predicted that quarks and gluons would have been widely spaced in the extreme heat of the very early universe, so that the quark-gluon plasma would have behaved like a gas.

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