Atomic Heritage Foundation

In partnership with the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Origins of the Universe

Origins of the Universe

ALICE at CERN. Photo by Antonio Saba.

Sociology and Science

A model of the Big Bang expansion.

Window into the Early Universe

  • Sociology and Science

    Sociology and Science

    At CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland, scientists from around the world investigate the fundamentals of the universe. Physicists Thomas Cormier and Thom Mason stress the benefits of conducting international cooperative research.

    Narrator: CERN is the European Center for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland. Physicist Thomas Cormier describes his team’s work at CERN and how it brings together scientists from around the world.

    Thomas Cormier: We use the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN facility. CERN is the European Center for Nuclear Research, and all the European countries come together there to conduct their research in this field, elementary particle physics and high energy physics. By pooling their resources, they’re able to build an impressive facility, a world-class facility. It’s said to be the largest physics laboratory in the world.

    It is definitely Big Science. Obviously, this doesn’t fit on a university campus anymore. In fact, it almost doesn’t fit in more than one place in the world. The whole world comes together to do this in one place, and that’s what CERN is.

    That’s an important part of this, I think, and that attracts some people to it. It pushes some people away, because they just see it as so much chaos. There are long periods of chaos, there’s no doubt about it. But in the end, when it all comes together and works, it’s really quite impressive that you can really get that many people moving in the same direction. It’s an exercise, really, in sociology as well as science, which is kind of fun.

    Narrator: Economic constraints often impose limitations on scientific research. However, as former Oak Ridge National Laboratory director Thom Mason argues, projects like the ones at CERN can bring about unexpected outcomes, such as the creation of the internet.

    Thom Mason: Massive collaborations that form around the detectors at CERN, which Oak Ridge is part of, and Brookhaven is part of and Berkeley Lab and so forth and Fermilab. Hundreds of people coming together to try and make use of that accelerator, to pull apart the fundamental constituents of matter, and understand what holds the universe together.

    It’s unlikely that there will be a direct economic benefit from the underlying science that is being done at CERN in terms of our understanding of—whether, you know, it’s the Higgs boson or quark-gluon plasmas. There’s not a product line that flows from that. But on the other hand, by tackling those really difficult problems and finding ways to solve them, I have a high confidence that there’s going to be really useful things that will come out as byproducts of that effort. I mean, the best example is a CERN example, which is the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web and the hypertext markup language, which HTML came about, because the particle physics community was trying to solve a really tough problem about how to collaborate internationally and share all this data that we’re generating.

  • Window into the Early Universe

    Window into the Early Universe

    Thomas Cormier leads the Large Hadron Collider Heavy Ion Group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He explains how the experiments his team conducts at CERN for ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) enable researchers to study the physics of the early universe.

    Narrator: Thomas Cormier and his team recreated the conditions of the universe right after the Big Bang, approximately 13.8 billion years ago.

    Thomas Cormier: Now, at this facility, what we do is we collide elementary particles. My specialty is colliding whole nuclei. Whole lead nuclei, circulating around this accelerator in opposite directions at really unprecedented energies, are brought into collisions as a means to produce tiny samples of ordinary matter, heated to trillions of degrees Centigrade and compressed to hundreds of times the density of normal nuclei, to essentially turn back the clock. This tiny sample of matter is similar to, it turns out, what the matter that made up the universe was like when the universe was only a few microseconds old. Basically, so it’s basically using that facility, and those special ions, gives us a window into the nature of the matter that filled the universe when it was only a few microseconds old.

    What we do is we take a sample of matter the size of a lead nucleus and heat it, as I said, to trillions and trillions of degrees, until the matter melts into a soup, which is very much like the early universe in the first few microseconds of its existence.

    And then, our detectors help us study the properties of that matter and observe it as it expands and cools and turns back into ordinary matter. So, we can trace it from the instant of the collision, where the temperature goes from essentially zero all the way up to trillions and trillions of degrees in the collision, and then watch the collision come apart in our detectors as the matter cools back down. And can watch the transitions that it goes through, the same transitions that the early universe went through, where the early constituents of the universe was this soup of quarks and gluons at very, very high temperature, which expanded. The universe expanded through its first moments of existence, and as it expanded it cooled in the same way that our little mini-bangs expand and cool when we perform the collisions at the Large Hadron Collider.

    So, we can study how ordinary matter reappears. You start with these collisions, they create the matter of the early universe, and then study it as it reemerges as ordinary matter and what kind of matter is made. Do we make the protons and neutrons, for instance, that make up everything around us today appear in our collision? So, we start with matter, heat it to trillions of degrees where there are no protons and neutrons –– there are only quarks and gluons –– and then we watch it cool and expand. And we watch the protons and neutrons emerge, again, from this hot soup, just the way they did from the early universe.

    So, it is really sort of an experimental probing of how the universe behaved in that first few microseconds, which we can then compare with the theories of the early universe.


Quick Fact:
As of 2018, the ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) project at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, in Geneva brings together nearly 2,000 researchers from 40 countries and 175 institutions.