Quote-Unquote (me)

It must have been a slow news day, because I’m quoted in The Guardian: Scientists create ‘black holes’ on Earth, by Alok Jha. (Also, if you’re at Imperial‘s Blackett Lab today, you can see an excerpt on the plasma screen by the lifts.)

The story is about a paper by Horatiu Nastase of Brown University, discussing recent experiments using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at the Brookhaven National Lab in New York. These experiments take heavy nuclei, made up of neutrons and protons (themselves made of quarks and gluons) and throw them at each other at close to the speed of light. In his paper, Nastase uses some of the mathematical technology of String Theory to try to show that the resulting so-called “fireball” has some of the same quantum-mechanical properties as a black hole. (A bit more info from someone who actually works on this here.)

Unfortunately my own understanding of the subject is meager at best, so my quotes are not too enlightening: “A black hole that can do interesting or scary things has to be quite large” and, even worse, “A few particles that you can push together in an accelerator ain’t going to hurt anybody“. Yes, I really did say “ain’t”, although my recollection is that it was actually “ain’t gonna” which is even worse grammar but sounds a bit better.

Actually, the most interesting thing about RHIC to me is not that it could possibly make a black hole, but that it could duplicate the properties of the early universe, the so-called “quark-gluon plasma”, just a microsecond after the Big Bang, when conditions were so hot and dense that individual nuclei couldn’t exist, but were kept broken up into a soup of their constituent quarks and the gluons that usually bind them together. If we could understand matter in these conditions, we might be able to understand some fundamental questions about the Universe, such as why it’s filled with matter instead of anti-matter.

The RHIC experiment had been the subject of controversy before, when some physicist suggested that, in its quest to create the quark-gluon plasma, it might create matter in a state not normally present in today’s comparatively cold Universe, creating particles that could catalyze a reaction converting all of the matter around into a soup of quarks. The consensus was that, actually, this is nonsense (or at least extraordinarily unlikely!) and, in the event, we’re still here.