The Limits of Ordinary Matter

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Science  24 Jun 2011:
Vol. 332, Issue 6037, pp. 1513-1514
DOI: 10.1126/science.1207995

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All ordinary matter consists of protons and neutrons, collectively called nucleons, which are bound together in atomic nuclei, and electrons. The elementary constituents of protons and neutrons, the quarks, almost always remain confined inside nucleons (or any other particle made up of quarks, called hadrons). The fundamental force that binds quarks together—the strong, or “color” force—cannot be overcome unless extremely high-energy conditions are created, such as through heavy-particle collisions. Theoretical simulations based on quantum chromodynamics (QCD) predict that the transition temperature for the appearance of free quarks should occur at 2.0 × 1012 K (an energy of 175 million eV) (1, 2). Since 2000, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory has created the necessary conditions to form quark matter in particle collision, but determining the transition temperature under these conditions is challenging. On page 1525 of this issue, Gupta et al. (3) show that the relevant temperature and energy scales can be extracted from recent experimental studies and find that the transition temperature is in remarkable agreement with theory.