Scientists say they are thrilled about a series of recent experiments with simple protons at the Large Hadron Collider, and that a wealth of new physics knowledge could be unearthed soon when the machine begins to smash more complicated nuclei into each other at nearly the speed of light.
Already, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, and outside experts are hailing the new data. They say colliding particles seem to be creating "hot dense matter" that would have existed microseconds after the Big Bang and might hold the key for understanding how the liquids, gases and solids of our universe were created.
CERN says the correlations bear similarities to studies with larger particle structures conducted at the U.S. Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, and that they reveal how some particles are "intimately linked in a way not seen before in proton collisions."
"We are very excited," said Raju Venugopalan, a senior Brookhaven scientist who wasn't involved in CERN's experiments. He told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the data showed "for the first time" that protons have quantum properties that can be enhanced in collisions.
Scientists say the effects they are observing are "obscure." But they are possibly a key piece in CERN's ultimate quest of answering the great questions of particle physics, such as the presumed existence of antimatter and the Higgs boson - sometimes referred to as the "God particle" because scientists theorize that it gives mass to other particles and thus to all objects and creatures in the universe.
The laboratory's spokesman, James Gillies, said the experiments showed the Large Hadron Collider "is starting to deliver" after a patchy start that included costly repairs and upgrades.
"Up to now, we were remeasuring old physics," he said. "Now we're moving to new and better things."
Even if the latest data fail to produce immediately useful knowledge, the tests show the collider's unprecedented capacity for discovery, said Joe Incandela, a senior CERN scientist.
Venugopalan said CERN's results show how extremely "tiny and normally short-lived quantum fluctuations of protons are frozen in place." This is because of Einstein's special relativity and generates remarkable results, he said.
Physicists have used smaller, room-temperature colliders for decades to study the atom. They once thought protons and neutrons were the smallest components of the atom's nucleus, but the colliders showed that they are made of quarks and gluons and that there are other forces and particles.
The machine in the 17-mile tunnel under the Swiss-French border at Geneva is already operating at 7 trillion electron volts, an energy level three times greater than any previous physics accelerator. The energy won't be doubled to 14 TeV until 2013, but CERN already plans to replace the simple protons with heavier lead nuclei for collisions in October.