One of the more compelling reasons to accept the modern theory of the big bang and what came after it is because of how ridiculous it sounds and, as we all can empirically observe, the universe is ridiculous. Diving into the fundamental processes and epic, majestic, and impossibly old and huge events that started the chain reaction we find ourselves currently embroiled in, we start having to describe our reality with words like “gluon,” “quark,” and “hot soup.” Those are silly words for a silly universe. Yet, with the help of 21st century super-technology, researchers are beginning to see that these aren’t abstractions that only live inside equations, they’re tangible things (with the right measuring devices), and researchers with the PHENIX experiment at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory seem to have cooked up a pot of the hot soup that emerged from the big bang and condensed into all the atoms we know and love.
It was a small pot. Subatomic in size, actually, but only slightly less impressive than a fine lobster bisque. The soup in question is called quark-gluon plasma, a “perfect fluid”—meaning that it flows with with essentially zero viscosity, or as opposite from molasses as you can get—that condensates into the protons and neutrons which make up the nuclei of atoms. To do this, researchers smashed different small particles into nuclei of gold atoms at close to the speed of light and a detector recorded what was expelled from the tiny, violent explosions. According to their predictions, a quark-gluon plasma perfect fluid (see? it’s ridiculous) would flow in the exact geometry of the exploded particle, which is precisely what happened. According to PHENIX spokesperson Yasuyuki Akiba:
“If such low viscosity conditions and pressure gradients are created in collisions between small projectiles and gold nuclei, the pattern of particles picked up by the detector should retain some ‘memory’ of each projectile’s initial shape—spherical in the case of protons, elliptical for deuterons, and triangular for helium-3 nuclei.”
Julia Velkovska, deputy spokesperson at PHENIX elaborated on the results:
“The latest data—the triangular flow measurements for proton-gold and deuteron-gold collisions newly presented in this paper—complete the picture. This is a unique combination of observables that allows for decisive model discrimination.”
“In all six cases, the measurements match the predictions based on the initial geometric shape. We are seeing very strong correlations between initial geometry and final flow patterns, and the best way to explain that is that quark-gluon plasma was created in these small collision systems. This is very compelling evidence.”
So what’s the takeaway from all this? Well, it’s another in an increasingly frequent series of steps to the big, previously unassailable questions about the nature of our reality and how it all got here. Also, a step closer to science literally playing God in a way never thought possible when that phrase was coined. Whether you think that’s pretty cool, or pretty scary is another matter entirely. But hey, there have been billions of humans who have lived and died in a time when nobody could even dream of blowing up subatomic particles at the speed of light with huge weird machines, and you’re not one of them. That’s pretty cool.