Smashing protons at high energies is fun and all, but researchers at the Large Hadron Collider are taking a vacation from their day-to-day proton smashing, and taking a trip back to the very origins of the universe.
Starting this month and continuing for four weeks, the LHC will accelerate and then collide lead ions – that is, entire atomic nuclei – to create a series of miniature Big Bangs that will let researchers take a look at the quark-gluon plasma that existed just a fraction of a second after the universe was born.
The proton collisions conducted thus far have generated mountains of data for researchers by producing new and different particles, some of which may have never been seen by scientists before (like the elusive and theoretical Higgs boson). But the lead ion collisions will be different; because lead ions are composed of complete atomic nuclei – not just a single subatomic particle – their masses are far larger. Plug more mass into Einstein’s most famous equation and the energy produced increases as well.
Those higher energy ion collisions are short in duration but long on heat. In fact, they should be the hottest collisions created yet. Brookhaven National Labs’ Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider has conducted similar experiments with gold ions and reached 4 trillion degrees Kelvin (250,000 times hotter than the sun’s core). The LHC’s mini Big Bangs should be even hotter.