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Densest Matter Created in Big-Bang Machine

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A picture of the LHC's ALICE detector, which helped observe the densest matter. Photograph courtesy Mona Schweizer, CERN

A superhot substance recently made in the Large Hadron Collider (pictures) is the densest form of matter ever observed, scientists announced this week.

Known as a quark-gluon plasma, the primordial state of matter may be what the entire universe was like in the immediate aftermath of the big bang.

The exotic material is more than a hundred thousand times hotter than the inside of the sun and is denser than a neutron star, one of the densest known objects in the universe.

"Besides black holes, there's nothing denser than what we're creating," said David Evans, a physicist at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. and a team leader for the LHC's ALICE detector, which helped observe the quark-gluon plasma.

"If you had a cubic centimeter of this stuff, it would weigh 40 billion tons."

Densest Matter Acts Like Perfect Liquid

By triggering hundreds of thousands of high-speed collisions each second, physicists using the LHC hope to break subatomic particles into even more basic forms of matter, which can be used to study what the universe was like a trillionth of a second after the big bang.

LHC scientists made the quark-gluon plasma last year by smashing together lead ions—lead atoms that have been stripped of their electrons—at nearly the speed of light.

As the name suggests, quark-gluon plasma is made up of quarks and gluons. Quarks are the elementary building blocks of positively charged protons and neutral neutrons, which make up atomic cores. Gluons are particles that "glue" quarks together using the so-called strong force.

It's thought that, as the universe cooled, the quark-gluon plasma that existed after the big bang coalesced to form matter as we know it today. (Related: "Strange Particle Created; May Rewrite How Matter's Made.")

The quark-gluon plasma created at the LHC is about twice the amount and about twice as hot as quark-gluon plasma previously made using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York.

Still, the plasmas created by the two machines are very similar, scientists said this week during the Quark Matter 2011 Conference in Annecy, France. For example, scientists have now confirmed that both versions behaved like so-called perfect liquids, with nearly zero friction.

"If you stir a cup of tea with a spoon and then take the spoon out, the tea stirs for a while and then it stops. If you had a perfect liquid and you stirred it, it would carry on going around forever," Evans explained.

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