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New thinking on the earliest moments of the universe
Scripps Howard News Service


June 14, 2005

If you value your watch, don't hand it to a particle physicist and ask him how it works.

That could lead to some nasty consequences, although the particle physicist might learn some entirely new tricks from the process, said Stephen Pate, a physicist at New Mexico State University.

"If somebody hands you a watch and you want to know how it works, what we do is smash the watch and see what's left on the floor," Pate laughed.

"We don't have a screwdriver to take apart atoms. So that's how we have to look at them."

Pate is part of a contingent of New Mexico particle physicists who spend time smashing up atoms in an accelerator at New York's Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The group of about 40 scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University recently were part of a profound discovery in the world of particle physics.

They learned from the broken-up subatomic leftovers of gold atoms that in the first couple of milliseconds of the big bang, the universe didn't work the way they thought it did.

"We thought we were going to create a sort of gas of quarks and gluons - which are tiny pieces of atoms," Pate said. "But when we did the experiment, it turned out more like a liquid. It was sticky."

In those early moments of the universe - before the first atoms were even born - the soup of tiny atomic pieces stayed together and flowed in a puddle, rather than floating loosely together as a gas as the scientists thought, said David Lee, team leader of the project at Los Alamos.

"What that does right now is alter our ideas of what this early quark-gluon plasma was," Lee said. "It may impact what we think occurred after the big bang, at least for a certain amount of time. There's a lot that's not clear yet, and we still have a lot to learn."

It's still not clear if the puddle influenced how the subsequent universe we live in was shaped, and if that shape is different than it would be if in those early seconds the atomic chunks behaved more like a gas, Lee said.

"At Los Alamos we're working on some upgrades to the equipment at Brookhaven that will tell us in more detail what's going on," Lee said.

"But my group is mostly experimentalists. What we do is learn how matter behaves. It's up to the theorists to take that and figure out what it means and what it does."

Theorists at Los Alamos are just starting to look at the data from the experiment and thinking about other experiments that will follow well into the future, Lee said.

"It's sort of fun to watch that as an experimentalist," he said. "The theorists take our work and come up with all sorts of ideas, have knockdown drag-outs with each other and eventually build cases for certain theories that end up winning out."

New Mexico's lab and university theorists will join others from several countries in analyzing the data, Lee said.

"The overall project involves about 500 scientists from all over the world, but New Mexico has a strong contingent in that group because of Los Alamos' involvement," Lee said.

"Los Alamos designed part of the project called a muon (a subatomic particle) spectrometer, and we formed a collaboration with New Mexico's universities to work with us on the project."

The project, called PHENIX, for Pioneering High Energy Nuclear Interaction Experiment, has been investigating smashed-up atomic residue since 2000, but the discovery of the early atomic puddle happened only a month ago, Lee said.


Contact Sue Vorenberg of The Tribune in
Albuquerque, N.M., at

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