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'Bubbles' of Broken Symmetry in Quark Soup...
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08/27/2011 01:05 PM
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Scientists at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), a 2.4-mile-circumference particle accelerator at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, report the first hints of profound symmetry transformations in the hot soup of quarks, antiquarks, and gluons produced in RHIC's most energetic collisions. In particular, the new results, reported in the journal Physical Review Letters, suggest that "bubbles" formed within this hot soup may internally disobey the so-called "mirror symmetry" that normally characterizes the interactions of quarks and gluons.
"RHIC's collisions of heavy nuclei at nearly light speed are designed to re-create, on a tiny scale, the conditions of the early universe. These new results thus suggest that RHIC may have a unique opportunity to test in the laboratory some crucial features of symmetry-altering bubbles speculated to have played important roles in the evolution of the infant universe," said Steven Vigdor, Brookhaven's Associate Laboratory Director for Nuclear and Particle Physics, who oversees research at RHIC.
Physicists have predicted an increasing probability of finding such bubbles, or local regions, of "broken" symmetry at extreme temperatures near transitions from one phase of matter to another. According to the predictions, the matter inside these bubbles would exhibit different symmetries -- or behavior under certain simple transformations of space, time, and particle types -- than the surrounding matter. In addition to the symmetry violations probed at RHIC, scientists have postulated that analogous symmetry-altering bubbles created at an even earlier time in the universe helped to establish the preference for matter over antimatter in our world.
RHIC's most energetic collisions create the kind of extreme conditions that might be just right for producing such local regions of altered symmetry: A temperature of several trillion degrees Celsius, or about 250,000 times hotter than the center of the Sun, and a transition to a new phase of nuclear matter known as quark-gluon plasma. Furthermore, as the colliding nuclei pass near each other, they produce an ultra-strong magnetic field that facilitates detecting effects of the altered symmetry.
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