QUARKS, GLUONS, AND ENERGY

Some events are important for reasons that take years to become evident.

Some events are important for reasons that take years to become evident.

For the energy industry, such an event occurred this week in CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research near Geneva, Switzerland.

An important laboratory for high-energy physics, CERN routinely smashes pieces of atoms into one another to produce subatomic particles predicted by quantum mechanics.

In quest of bigger game - actually smaller in the quantum world - workers recently adapted CERN's Super Proton Synchrotron to accelerate lead ions to nearly the speed of light, collide them together, and measure results.

This week scientists involved in seven crucial experiments in that project reported indications that for a tiny fraction of a second after the lead ion collisions, particles called quarks and gluons existed independently of one another in a soup known as plasma.

Quarks are the quantum bricks that form neutrons and protons. Gluons act as the quantum mortar that holds quarks together.

The universe has had no quark-gluon plasma for 15 billion years or so. And it didn't have the stuff for long: 10 millionths of a second, according to theory.

Physicists believe that quarks and gluons began consolidating into elementary particles just that quickly after the Big Bang-the moment when the universe is believed by scientists to have exploded from a single point.

After formation of the elementary particles, matter went through a succession of changes, or freezings, into forms now observed in the universe.

What the CERN scientists have done, therefore, is recreate a state of matter that hasn't existed since the universe was 10 microseconds old.

That's what the experiments say, at any rate. It took 350 scientists 5 years to sort through the data, checking what sorts of subparticles appeared after the lead smashings and what sorts did not, to deduce that quarks and gluons had, indeed, zipped about freely for a billion-billionth of a microsecond.

Work now passes to the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the US, where the specially built Relativistic Heavy Ion collider will destroy gold nuclei. The result should be a quark-gluon plasma that lasts 10 times longer than CERN's product. Scientists might then be able to directly observe the plasma and its conversion into particles.

It is, of course, a long way from evidence of momentary quark freedom to practical application of the findings. But there are implications for energy.

Scientists already talk about channeling electrons through quantum wires in superconducting electrical devices, for example. It can't hurt to have another bit of validation of the theories on which such dreams are based.

And in the immediate business of accelerating metal ions enough so that their collisions liberate quarks and gluons, energy itself is no small matter.

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