Tennis ball? Smaller. Jellybean? Keep going. Grain of sand? You’re not even close.
As part of a study focusing on nuclear matter in extreme conditions, Vanderbilt University physicist Julia Velkovska has produced liquid droplets 1/100,000,000th the size of a virus.
The droplets were discovered during proton-lead collisions inside the Large Hadron Collider, located in the European Laboratory for Nuclear Particle Physics near Geneva, Switzerland. The LHC is a circular tunnel built underground and is nearly 17 miles in circumference.
“We had a group of protons and a group of lead nuclei traveling inside the LHC at nearly the speed of light,” Velkovska said. “The collisions between the particles occurred every 50 billionth of a second during a four-hour period.”
Based on previous experiments, Velkovska knew what she wanted to observe, but wasn’t necessarily prepared for the results she found.
The scientists originally thought the substance would behave more like a gas. However, from the data that was collected in January and February, Velkovska concluded that due to the particles’ angles of distribution, a liquid was being produced.
She and her team are now trying to find out if the subatomic liquid droplets are a substance known as quark-gluon plasma, which is what some believe to be the state of matter that existed at the beginning of the universe. It is a substance that scientists have been trying to produce since the turn of the century.
Velkovska said finding the plasma could better tell how and why the universe evolved the way it did.
“That is one of the things that we are trying to study. What we have seen is that the particles talk to each other and that there is some collective behavior between them. But we are not able to confirm that it is quark-gluon plasma yet because we still have more questions to answer.”
By doing these studies, Velkovska said they are also learning more about the nature of phase transitions.
“I want to keep pushing the boundaries of knowledge and nature, which I think is the drive behind most scientists.”
And in the end, a tiny droplet may end up being a big discovery.