NEW YORK – New results from a particle collider (search) suggest that the universe behaved like a liquid in its earliest moments, not the fiery gas that was thought to have pervaded the first microseconds of existence.
By revising physicists' concept of the early universe, the new discovery offers opportunities to better learn how subatomic particles interact at the most fundamental level. It may also reveal intriguing parallels between gravity and the force that holds atomic nuclei together, physicists said Monday at a Tampa, Fla., meeting of the American Physical Society (search).
"There are a lot of exciting questions," said Sam Aronson, associate director for high energy and nuclear physics at Brookhaven National Laboratory (search), which is located on Long Island about 65 miles east of New York city.
Between 2000 and 2003 the lab's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, known as RHIC, repeatedly smashed the nuclei of gold atoms together with such force that their energy briefly generated trillion-degree temperatures. Physicists think of the collider as a time machine, because those extreme temperature conditions last prevailed in the universe less than 100 millionths of a second after the big bang.
Everything was so hot then that quarks and gluons, which are now almost inextricably bound into the protons and neutrons inside atomic nuclei, were thought to have flown around like BBs in a blender.
But by reproducing the conditions of the early universe, RHIC has shown that unconstrained quarks and gluons don't fly away in all directions so much as squirt out in streams.
"The matter that we've formed behaves like a very nearly perfect liquid," Aronson said.
When physicists talk about a perfect liquid, they don't mean the best glass of champagne they ever tasted. The word "perfect" refers to the liquid's viscosity, a friction-like property that affects a fluid's ability to flow and the resistance to objects trying to swim through it. Honey has a high viscosity; water's viscosity is low. A perfect liquid has no viscosity at all, which is impossible in reality but useful for theoretical discussions.
"You always have to have a little bit of viscosity," said Brookhaven physicist Peter Steinberg. "The excitement is that we might be achieving the lowest viscosity that's possible."
Theoretical physicists have recently proposed that material swallowed by black holes might also have extremely low viscosity. That notion, based on a branch of mathematical physics known as string theory, has led some physicists to hypothesize that there might be a deeper connection between what happens in a black hole and what goes on when two gold nuclei collide at RHIC. For physicists, any chance to draw parallels between two vastly different phenomena is an opportunity to advance toward the field's holy grail, the unification of nature's forces.
"It's just a very fascinating problem for a physicist to work on," said Dmitri Kharzeev, a theoretical physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
But it is far from being a breakthrough, cautions Dam Thanh Son, one of the string theorists who is working on the problem.
"There may be a deep connection between string theory and the real world," said Son, a physics professor at the University of Washington. "The RHIC results will provide a lot of encouragement for people to try to find such a connection."