Kent physicists search for the unknown

Jeremy Nobile

Work will identify new phase of matter

Physics professors at Kent State University continue a quest in search of the “holy grail” of their field.

Through a direct connection with the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider facility at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island N.Y, these three physicists spend their little free time away from the university conducting research to identify a new phase of matter. This matter, known as quark gluon plasma, is widely believed to have formed seconds before the Big Bang.

“The goal is to understand this physical world around us,” said Bryon Anderson, physics professor and department chair and RHIC scientist. “The more we know, the more we can understand the beginning of the universe.”

RHIC (pronounced “Rick”) is a particle accelerator similar to the Large Hadron Collider located under France and Switzerland, only smaller. It began operation in 2000 and is currently used by hundreds of physicists around the world to study the origin of the universe.

The professors typically spend their summers studying at RHIC, and they sometimes request time away from the university to conduct their studies.

Spyridon Margetis, physics professor and director for Kent State’s Center of Nuclear Research, who is also conducting research, explained that a particle accelerator is a machine that accelerates beams, usually of gold or lead atoms, in opposite directions at “99.9 percent the speed of light” before they collide.

“It’s expected you will burst the bubbles that hold these particles,” Margetis said.

This burst results in deconfinement, which occurs when the walls of the nucleus are gone and the particles inside it, called quarks and gluons, can move all around this increased volume. Special detectors inside the collider capture how this happens. This phase of nuclear matter is the quark gluon plasma, which Margetis considers the metaphorical “carrot that drives the donkey” of their research.

The understanding of this matter is essential to analyzing the composition of the universe. Nuclear matter also has some special properties, including its extraordinary weight and possible super fluidity, which refers to a perfect fluid that has no friction.

“One example I always use is a spoonful of nuclear matter weighs as much as the water in Lake Erie,” Margetis said.

The unpredictability of nature makes it difficult to determine exactly what will come of their research.

“We’re studying the nature of matter at its fundamental level,” Keane said. “How it will unfold is impossible to say.”

The revolutionary discoveries these physicists and their colleagues made can be related to Columbus’ expedition. Everyone is simply searching for the unknown.

“We’re mapping out the dark areas of knowledge,” Margetis said. “We’re not sure what will come of the work.”

Although scientists have witnessed the release of this matter in experiments before, more definitive proof is still necessary to truly identify it. The proof comes from gathering more data through repeated experiments, which is similar to reducing the margin of error in polls via an increased sample size.

“There’s no real smoking gun indicator,” said Declan Keane, physics professor and graduate coordinator, the third Kent State physicist participating in the research. “But some physicists feel it (quark gluon plasma) has already been discovered.”

Whatever is discovered through future experiments is a mystery, but one thing is certain. Whenever one question is answered, even more questions arise.

“It’s amazing what we know, but also what we don’t know,” Anderson said.

Contact sciences reporter Jeremy Nobile at [email protected].