Smashing gold ions creates most swirly fluid ever

Record-making vorticity found in quark-gluon plasma

gold ion collisions

GIVING IT A WHIRL  Collisions of gold ions in the STAR experiment create an intensely whirling fluid. The mess of particles emitted in such collisions (like the one shown above) allows scientists to study the swirls.

Brookhaven National Laboratory

High-energy ion collisions have produced the swirliest fluid ever discovered, in a state of matter that mimics the early universe.

To create the überwhirly liquid, scientists slammed gold ions together at velocities approaching the speed of light at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. Such collisions, performed in Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, cook up an ultrahot fluid, re-creating the state of the universe millionths of a second after the Big Bang, before protons and neutrons had formed. In this fluid, known as a quark-gluon plasma, the constituents of protons and neutrons — quarks and gluons — intermingle freely (SN: 12/10/16, p. 9).

Scientists already knew that this fluid is the hottest ever produced in a laboratory, and that it has almost no viscosity. Now, physicists can add one more unusual property to the list. The quark-gluon plasma created in such collisions has an average vorticity — or swirliness — of about 9 billion trillion radians per second, researchers from the STAR Collaboration report online January 23 at That’s vastly more than other known fluids. Even the core of a supercell tornado has a vorticity of only 0.1 radians per second.

To measure vorticity, the scientists studied a quantum mechanical property called spin from particles produced in the collision known as lambda baryons. The spin, an intrinsic type of angular momentum, tends to align with the vorticity of the fluid, providing a window into the plasma’s gyrations.  

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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