For several years, physicists at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), USA, have studied an unusual state of matter called the quark–gluon plasma, which they believe mimics the hot, dense particle soup that existed immediately after the big bang.
Figure 1: The PHENIX detector at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider measures the particles that emerge from high-energy collisions between nuclei. Copyright : 2011 Brookhaven National Laboratory
Now, the PHENIX collaboration at RHIC reports findings about a particle called the J/ø meson that will help physicists distinguish the properties of the quark–gluon plasma (QGP) from those of normal matter1.
To create a QGP, physicists crash gold nuclei together at close to the speed of light. This provides enough energy to break apart the protons and neutrons in the nuclei into their constituent quarks and gluons, which mediate the force between quarks. In this energetic mash up, a host of short-lived particles can form, including mesons, which are made up of a quark and an anti-quark.
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