The Little Bang

So, in the news, you may have heard that scientists working on that massively epic underground experiment at CERN aka the Large Hadron Collider, have successfully created a mini-Big Bang (so should it be called a Little Bang?) by smashing lead ions together to recreate the kind of conditions that are believed to have given rise to the universe 13.7 billion years ago.

 Incredibly, the experiment generated temperatures a million times hotter than the centre of the sun, so outrageously hot that the protons and neutrons actually MELTED, ending up in a “hot dense soup of quarks and gluons known as a quark-gluon plasma” to quote Dr David Evans, one of the researchers on the experiment. Sounds yummy. Quarks and gluons are subatomic particles that are the building blocks of protons and neutrons, and therefore, of matter in general. By studying the plasma, scientists hope to learn more about the ‘Strong Force’ which gives atoms most of their mass.

Image of data from lead ion collision at LHC, courtesy of BBC

Data from lead ion collision experiment at LHC

It is extremely expensive to run experiments within the LHC, so it’s great to hear about such fascinating research coming out of it. In terms of benefiting humanity directly though, it’s not a cure for cancer or a solution to world hunger- so are we justified in putting this much money into it? How will working out the intricacies of the universe’s formation help us as a species? And who is to say what research is worth our pennies, and what isn’t?

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