Protons, neutrons melt to produce ‘quark-gluon plasma’ at RHIC

The positive and sometimes unexpected impact of particle physics is well documented, from physicists inventing the World Wide Web to engineering the technology underlying life-saving magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) devices. But sometimes the raw power of huge experiments and scientific ambition draw the recognition of those seeking only the most extreme achievements on Earth.

Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) smashes particles together to recreate the incredible conditions that only existed at the dawn of time (video). The 2.4-mile underground atomic “racetrack” at RHIC produces fundamental insights about the laws underlying all visible matter. But along the way, its particles also smashed a world record.

Guinness World Records, no longer encumbered by “book of,” recognized Brookhaven Lab for achieving the “Highest Man-Made Temperature.” When RHIC collides gold ions at nearly the speed of light, the impact energy becomes so intense that the neutrons and protons inside the gold nuclei “melt,” releasing fundamental quarks and gluons that then form a nearly friction-free primordial plasma that only existed in Nature about a millionth of one second after the Big Bang. RHIC discovered this primordial, liquid-like quark-gluon plasma and measured its temperature at around 4 trillion degrees Celsius – that’s 250,000 times hotter than the center of the sun.