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'Little' Big Bang stumps scientists

By Richard Stenger
CNN

End view of a collision of two gold beams, traveling in opposite directions at nearly light-speed, in the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.
End view of a collision of two gold beams, traveling in opposite directions at nearly light-speed, in the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.

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(CNN) -- Smashing together atoms to produce conditions similar to those in the first cosmic moments, scientists came up with some startling results that could force them to reexamine their understanding of the universe.

The atomic collision, as expected, produced temperatures tens of thousands of times hotter than the core of the hottest star, a thermodynamic pinnacle unmatched since microseconds after the Big Bang.

But exotic particles streamed from the hot plasma soup in surprising patterns, leading the researchers to question collision models intended to shed light on the strong nuclear force, one of the fundamental forces acting on subatomic particles.

"It's the things you weren't expecting that are really trying to tell you something," said Steven Manly of the University of Rochester in New York.

Manly and colleagues conducted their experiment at the Relativity Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) in Brookhaven, New York, sending separate beams of gold ions at nearly light-speed crashing into each other.

The collision briefly produced a hot, dense state, offering physicists a glimpse into the interaction of energy, matter and the strong nuclear force, which helps bind atoms together.

The aftermath of such atomic crash tests mimics what the universe might have looked like right after it began, according to RHIC scientists.

Like people rushing from a crowded room, the subatomic particles streamed out of the plasma soup with considerable haste. But the manner in which they exited led the research team to question their models of the strong force, one of the fundamental forces of the universe.

"We've been handed some new pieces of the puzzle and we're trying to figure out how this new picture fits together." Manly said.

The mysterious data could help unlock some big cosmic secrets. Cooling plasma might be responsible for giving matter its mass, just as condensing steam produces water.

The scientists, members of the PHOBOS project at RHIC, will publish their work in the November 25 edition of Physical Review Letters.

The collider includes 1,600 miles of superconducting wire, a 2.4-mile circumference ring large enough to be seen from space and thousands of magnets bathed in liquid helium at a temperature only 4.5 degrees above Absolute Zero.



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