Evolution of Matter from a Quark-Gluon Plasma

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The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory is able to smash gold ions together to create conditions under which individual protons and neutrons melt into a plasma consisting of quarks and gluons, at temperatures in excess of 4 trillion K. This is believed to approximate the state of the universe approximately seconds after the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago. By about seconds the quarks have combined into color-neutral hadrons, most notably protons and neutrons. Also, by a process not yet fully understood, almost all the antimatter particles have been annihilated, leaving our universe composed almost exclusively of matter. By the first three minutes, all the protons and neutrons have combined into the lighter elements deuterium, helium, and lithium, but with hydrogen (protons) still remaining the predominant species. After stars and their supernovas evolve, nucleosynthesis accounts for all the heavier elements.

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When the universe is about 350,000 years old, nuclei have captured most of the free electrons to produce electrically neutral atoms. Space becomes transparent to photons, which are still detected as the cosmic microwave background radiation today. In the past three billion or so years, molecules of increasing complexity have been able to assemble themselves. Molecular evolution eventually led to Darwinian evolution, which brings us to the present state of affairs with advanced lifeforms. The time scale of the slider and animation are extremely nonlinear.

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Contributed by: S. M. Blinder (March 2011)
Open content licensed under CC BY-NC-SA


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