The Early Universe in a Detector: Investigations with Heavy-Ion Experiments

Title: “Probing dense baryon-rich matter with virtual photons”

Author: HADES Collaboration


The quark-gluon plasma, a sea of unbound quarks and gluons moving at relativistic speeds thought to exist at extraordinarily high temperature and density, is a phase of matter critical to our understanding of the early universe and extreme stellar interiors. On the timescale of milliseconds after the Big Bang, the matter in the universe is postulated to have been in a quark-gluon plasma phase, before the universe expanded, cooled, and formed the hadrons we observe today from constituent quarks and gluons. The study of quark matter, the range of phases formed from quarks and gluons, can provide us with insight into the evanescent early universe, providing an intriguing focus for experimentation. Astrophysical objects that are comprised of quarks, such as neutron stars, are also thought to house the necessary conditions for the formation of quark-gluon plasma at their cores. With the accumulation of new data from neutron star mergers, studies of quark matter are becoming increasingly productive and rife for new discovery. 

Quantum chromodynamics (QCD) is the theory of quarks and the strong interaction between them. In this theory, quarks and force-carrying gluons, the aptly-named particles that “glue” quarks together, have a “color” charge analogous to charge in quantum electrodynamics (QED). In QCD, the gluon field is often modeled as a narrow tube between two color charges with a constant strong force between them, in contrast with the inverse-square dependence on distance for fields in QED. The pair potential energy between the quarks increases linearly with separation, eventually surpassing the creation energy for a new quark-antiquark pair. Hence, the quarks cannot exist in unbound pairs at low energies, a property known as color confinement. When separation is attempted between quarks, new quarks are instead produced. In particle accelerators, physicists see “jets” of new color-neutral particles (mesons and baryons) in the process of hadronization. At high energies, the story changes and hinges on an idea known as asymptotic freedom, in which the strength of particle interactions decreases with increased energy scale in certain gauge theories such as QCD. 

A Feynman diagrammatic scheme of the production of new hadrons from a dilepton collision. We observe an electron-positron pair annihilating to a virtual photon, which then decays to many hadrons via hadronization. Source:

QCD matter is commonly probed with heavy-ion collision experiments and quark-gluon plasma has been produced before in minute quantities at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Lab as well as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. The goal of these experiments is to create conditions similar to those of the early universe or at the center of dense stars — doing so requires intense temperatures and an abundance of quarks. Heavy-ions, such as gold or lead nuclei, fit this bill when smashed together at relativistic speeds. When these collisions occur, the resulting “fireball” of quarks and gluons is unstable and quickly decays into a barrage of new, stable hadrons via the hadronization method discussed above. 

There are several main goals of heavy-ion collision experiments around the world, revolving around the study of the phase diagram for quark matter. The first component of this is the search for the critical point: the endpoint of the line of first-order phase transitions. The phase transition between hadronic matter, in which quarks and gluons are confined, and partonic matter, in which they are dissociated in a quark-gluon plasma, is also an active area of investigation. There is additionally an ongoing search for chiral symmetry restoration at finite temperature and finite density. A chiral symmetry occurs when the handedness of the particles remains invariant under a parity transformation, that is, when the sign of a spatial coordinate is flipped. However, in QCD, a symmetric system becomes asymmetric in a process known as spontaneous symmetry breaking. Several experiments are designed to investigate evidence of the restoration of this symmetry.

The phase diagram for quark matter, a plot of chemical potential vs. temperature, has many unknown points of interest.  Source:

The HADES (High-Acceptance DiElectron Spectrometer) collaboration is a group attempting to address such questions. In a recent experiment, HADES focused on the creation of quark matter via collisions of a beam of Au (gold) ions with a stack of Au foils. Dileptons, which are bound lepton-antilepton pairs that emerge from the decay of virtual particles, are a key element of HADES’ findings. In quantum field theory (QFT), in which particles are modeled as excitations in an underlying field, virtual particles can be thought of as excitations in the field that are transient due to limitations set by the uncertainty principle. Virtual particles are represented by internal lines in Feynman diagrams, are used as tools in calculations, and are not isolated or measured on their own — they are only exchanged with ordinary particles. In the HADES experiment, the virtual photons that produce dileptons which immediately decouple from the strong force. Produced at all stages of QCD interaction, they are ideal messengers of any modification of hadron properties. They are also thought to contain information about the thermal properties of the underlying medium. 

To actually extract this information, the HADES detector utilizes a time-of-flight chamber and ring-imaging Cherenkov (RICH) chamber, which identifies particles using the characteristics of Cherenkov radiation: electromagnetic radiation emitted when a particle travels through a dielectric medium at a velocity greater than the phase velocity of light in that particular medium. The detector is then able to measure the invariant mass, rapidity (a commonly-used substitute measure for relativistic velocity), and transverse momentum of emitted electron-positron pairs, the dilepton of choice. In accelerator experiments, there are typically a number of selection criteria in place to ensure that the machinery is detecting the desired particles and the corresponding data is recorded. When a collision event occurs within HADES, a number of checks are in place to ensure that only electron-positron events are kept, factoring in both the number of detected events and detector inefficiency, while excess and background data is thrown out. The end point of this data collection is a calculation of the four-momenta of each lepton pair, a description of its relativistic energy and momentum components. This allows for the construction of a dilepton spectrum: the distribution of the invariant masses of detected dileptons. 

The main data takeaway from this experiment was the observation of an excess of dilepton events in an exponential shape, contrasting with the expected number of dileptons from ordinary particle collisions. This suggests a shift in the properties of the underlying matter, with a reconstructed temperature above 70 MeV (note that particle physicists tend to quote temperatures in more convenient units of electron volts). The kicker comes when the group compares these results to simulated neutron star mergers, with expected core temperatures of 75 MeV. This means that the bulk matter created within HADES is similar to the highly dense matter formed in such mergers, a comparison which has become recently accessible due to multi-messenger signals incorporating both electromagnetic and gravitational wave data. 

Practically, we see that HADES’ approach is quite promising for future studies of matter under extreme conditions, with the potential to reveal much about the state of the universe early on in its history as well as probe certain astrophysical objects — an exciting realization! 

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Amara McCune

Amara McCune is a PhD student in theoretical physics at UC Santa Barbara, focusing on phenomenology. She has bachelor’s degrees in physics and mathematics from Stanford University and currently spends the majority of her time in the theory groups of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Her interests include BSM model building, the interface of cosmology and particle physics, and flavor physics.

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