RHIC: The Other Collider

March 17, 2010

Brit Trogen

Everyone wants to know where they came from. Old people pore over family trees; paleontologists dig up cool bones; kids ask about reproduction. But experimental physicists take things a few billion steps further. They aren’t just interested in the origins of the Earth or humankind, but of the entire universe.

Which is why they’ve built “atom smashers”—machines capable of recreating the conditions of the early universe. And with the news that the Large Hadron Collidor will be out of commission for another year starting in 2012, the physics world will have to look elsewhere for its particle colliding fix. Like, for example, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collidor (RHIC) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York.

Science in Seconds blog Brit Trogen

Thankfully, since we’re dealing with multi-million dollar equipment here, they study different things. While the LHC spends most of its time smashing protons together in attempts to create new particles like the Higgs Boson, the RHIC collides the nuclei of heavy atoms (mostly gold) to try and figure out exactly what the strong force is that holds a nucleus together (think about it… they’re only positively charged!)

The RHIC accelerates nuclei at close to the speed of light, then smashes them together in four trillion degree collisions to form a small region where quarks and gluons (the components that make up the nucleus) are liberated, creating a quark-gluon plasma or “soup,” that rapidly expands and cools.

The collisions are so high energy that we can actually see E=mc2 at work; energy is directly converted to thousands of particles that shoot off in all directions. The data looks a bit like a Kush Ball—when scaled to the size of a three-storey house—and while this all lasts less than a billionth of a trillionth of a second, the amount we can learn about the rules governing our universe is astounding.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. With spin physics, hypertritons and all manner of strange things in stock, it seems like experimental physics will continue to be as bizarre and amazing as ever. With or without the LHC.



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