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LARGE HADRON RAP
Watch the uber-geeks rap and then read this old Tent Show chestnut, originally posted January 31, 2004:
Quantum Soup for the Physicist’s Soul?
The world wide community of experimental physicists is all abuzz over the new recipe for Quark-Gluon Plasma aka Primordial Quantum Soup. Just take the nuclei of two gold atoms, accelerate them almost to the speed of light, and smash together vigorously. Do not let cool. Detect a worthy event.
Keep in mind that physics theory is devised by onanist mathematicians rubbing their quanta together in chain frottage, the desideratum of the circle jerk being the Big O of a single equation that explains everything. Mathematics is a branch of Aesthetics, and equations are judged as much by their “beauty” and “elegance” as they are by their utility. In Quantum Theory, to have unsolvable infinities in one’s equations is considered unforgivably ugly, and such work will not be published in reputable journals. Just like a Dense Imagist submitting to Prairie Schooner or Poetry.
The Universe was a tiny bowl of said Quantum Soup up until a small fraction of second after the Big Bang. Let’s review the first million years after the beginning of time, shall we?
10,000,000,000 to 15,000,000,000 years ago. According to current cosmological estimates, the universe blinks into existence, a quantum fluctuation in primordial nothingness, a flaming mote in the blind eye of god, a fallen angel transgressing the perfect symmetrical vacuum of heaven—the beginning of time, space, energy, and matter—the whole shebang.
10-43 second after beginning of time. End of Planck epoch. Gravity breaks free of the symmetry of force in the cosmic mote (i.e., gravitational radiation falls out of thermal equilibrium with the rest of the universe).
10-34 second after beginning of time. The universe, in a vacuum state, though smaller than a proton, starts to “inflate” at an exponential rate, some 1050 times the present expansion rate, as measured by the Hubble constant.
10-30 second after beginning of time. Inflationary epoch ends. Particles precipitate out of vacuum. The universe is bit larger than a softball.
.000001 second after beginning of time. The universe is a very hot, very dense soup of free quarks and other exotic particles now trapped within protons and neutrons—the normal constituents of matter in the (relatively) low energy middle-aged universe.
.00001 second after beginning of time. Quarks and antiquarks complete mutual annihilation. The surviving surplus of matter quarks link up in trios to form protons and neutrons, the components of all future atomic nuclei.
0001 second after beginning of time. Like lovers trading spit in a French kiss, protons and neutrons pass electrons and positrons back and forth, and thereby switch identities, neutrons becoming protons, and vice versa. As it takes slightly more energy to become a neutron than a proton, the universe ends up with 5 times as many protons as neutrons.
1 second after beginning of time. Neutrino decoupling. The universe is still denser than rock, and hot as ground zero at the detonation of a hydrogen bomb, but now presents a virtual vacuum to neutrinos, which only react to the extremely short range weak force. Neutrinos begin to sleet through the cosmos, passing through most matter as if it just weren’t there, as they do to this day.
1 hour after beginning of time. The ambient temperature of the universe has dropped to about that of the center of a star.
1 year after beginning of time. The universe has cooled to the point that most nuclear processes have stopped.
1,000,000 years after beginning of time. “Let there be light.” Photon decoupling occurs. The ubiquitous cosmic plasma has thinned to the point that photons—the quantum particle of light-can travel through space without being immediately reabsorbed by particles of matter (baryons). The remnant photons of this universal flashbulb are still with us in the form of the cosmic background radiation, redshifted to the microwave band and cooled to a temperature of 3 degrees above absolute zero. Electrons, relatively free from the incessant bombardment of energetic photons, settle into orbit around atomic nuclei, forming atoms of hydrogen, helium, and lithium (just a dash, shaken, not stirred).
I’ve said before that we, as a species, may not be smart enough to figure all this—Life, the Universe, and Everything, as Douglas Adams termed it—out. The hubristic human brain, with its hundred million odd neurons, can manipulate in a mathematical stratagem numbers comfortably or even absurdly larger than the total number of elemental particles in the visible universe. Who knows how many human brains working for some thousands of years in the Lamarckian test tube of human culture have managed to forge hammers big enough to smash away at such tiny building blocks in our playpen. But can we do it? Can all the monkeys banging away at all those typewriters finally produce the script of Hamlet? It is fun to smash watches while rainforests burn. Free the quarks!