World's Fastest-Swirling Vortex Simulates the Big Bang
An illustration of the quark-gluon plasma created in the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory
Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

Faster than a tornado, speedier than the giant storm swirling on Jupiter — it's the world's fastest-swirling vortex, which scientists have created in a primordial soup of gluey particles meant to re-create the Big Bang.

The swirling particle soup rotates at head-snapping speeds — many times faster than the closest contenders.

However, don't expect this fast-spinning fluid to turn heads anytime soon, as the vortices occur in a material called a quark-gluon plasma that is so small that the signature of this whirling can be detected only by the particles it produces.

"We can't look at the quark-gluon plasma; it's on the scale of an atomic nucleus," said Michael Lisa, a physicist at The Ohio State University who works on the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) collaboration, which produced the new results. [The Big Bang to Civilization: 10 Amazing Origin Events]

Right after the Big Bang, a hot primordial stew of elementary particles called quarks and gluons permeated the baby universe. These elementary particles are the building blocks of better-known particles such as protons and neutrons. This quark-gluon plasma has several unique properties. First, at a blazing 7 trillion to 10 trillion degrees Fahrenheit (3.9 trillion to 5.6 trillion degrees Celsius), it's the hottest known fluid. It is also the densest fluid and "nearly perfect" in that it experiences almost no friction, meaning it flows very easily.

To understand exactly what happened in those moments after the Big Bang, scientists have re-created this primordial particle soup in an atom smasher at the RHIC, at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. The RHIC smashes the nuclei of gold atoms together at nearly the speed of light and then uses ultrasensitive detectors to measure the particles that fly off the collision.

In the new study, the team analyzed the quark-gluon plasma's vorticity — essentially a measure of its angular momentum or, in colloquial terms, how fast it spins.

Of course, they had a unique obstacle: The RHIC can produce just a teensy amount of the material, and it lives very fleetingly, or about 10 ^ minus 23 seconds. So there is no way to actually "observe" this fluid in the traditional sense.

Instead, scientists look for signatures of its whirling, based on the particles emitted from the soup, Lisa told Live Science. On average, particles inside a spinning fluid should have spins that roughly align with the angular momentum of the fluid. By measuring how much the particles coming off this whirling soup are deflected from their expected path, the team could calculate a rough estimate for the fluid's vorticity — which roughly measures the local spinning motion. In particular, particles known as lambda baryons tend to decay more slowly than other particles, such as protons and neutrons, meaning the RHIC detectors could more easily track their paths before they vanished.

It turns out, the vorticity in the quark-gluon plasma makes the whirling motion inside a tornado seem like a calm day in the park. The vorticity is the fastest ever recorded — much more rapid than that of Jupiter's Great Red Spot, a swirling storm of gas. It's also faster than the previous record holder, a supercooled type of helium nanodroplet, the researchers reported Aug. 2 in the journal Nature.

Understanding the structure of fluid flow in the plasma could reveal insight into the strong nuclear force, which binds atoms together, the researchers said. Several competing particle theories make predictions about vorticity that could eventually be compared against these experimental results. However, scientists still know too little about the plasma's swirling properties to make definitive conclusions.

"It's too early to say whether it teaches us something fundamental," Lisa said.

Originally published on Live Science.