Just beyond the security gate, teams of scientists—more than 5,000 researchers at any given time—are working tirelessly on experiments that one day could unravel mysteries that have boggled scholars for thousands of years and led to discoveries that could alter the world.
Yet most motorists who speed past Brookhaven National Laboratory, a research facility run by the U.S. Department of Energy that sits on nearly 5,300 acres off William Floyd Parkway in Upton, have little understanding of the intense work that is being undertaken there every day.
After all, most scientists never majored—or minored—in public relations.
To help shed a spotlight on the important work that is being completed there, Brookhaven National Laboratory recently compiled a list that highlights the top five discoveries recorded at the lab in 2010. While their discoveries ran the gamut—one team recorded a breakthrough on creating economically affordable fuel cells, while another group’s research has brought scientists one step closer to stamping out the tuberculosis bacteria altogether—all of their work is expected to have practical applications in the future.
Big Bang Theory
New insights about the origins of the universe unveiled themselves to scientists last year after they smashed two gold ions together with the assistance of BNL’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), a particle accelerator that mashes subatomic particles together at nearly the speed of light.
The collisions produced matter at 4 trillion degrees Celsius—250,000 times hotter than the core of the sun—marking the highest temperature ever recorded in a laboratory, according to Dr. James Dunlop, a physicist who works with the RHIC. The matter created by the experiment is a free-flowing liquid composed of elementary particles, called quarks and gluons, which combine to form the protons and neutrons that make up matter.
It is believed that the substance, dubbed a “quark-gluon plasma,” filled the universe a few microseconds after it came into existence almost 14 billion years ago, Dr. Dunlop explained. Before achieving that record-breaking temperature, scientists could not create this unusual liquid-like substance, which, they say, will help them understand what the universe looked like billions of years ago.
What is puzzling about this liquid is that, in small bubbles, it breaks the laws of physics, scientists said. Dr. Dunlop explained that these regions, which exist for mere billionths of a second, disobey “mirror symmetry,” a term that describes the way quarks and gluons should appear; in other words, their structures should look consistent and unchanged throughout the plasma—as if they’re being viewed in a mirror. But because so much energy was created in such a small amount of space, scientists said that the bubbles created by their experiment are actually asymmetric to the surrounding plasma, a discovery that could explain how the universe evolved following the Big Bang.
Usually, when energy is converted to mass, or vice-versa, an equal number of particles and oppositely charged antiparticles must be created or annihilated. But if this symmetry had not been broken, the particles and anti-particles created in equal numbers during the Big Bang would subsequently have eliminated one another in pairs, leaving no matter to form the stars, plants and people.
How matter actually survived the Big Bang remains one of the biggest mysteries in physics, though confirming the existence of symmetry violations—and eventually understanding how the broken symmetry forms—may help scientists piece together this puzzle and better understand how the universe was formed.
“This is research that we plan on using in the bigger picture,” Dr. Dunlop said.
Even though tuberculosis infects an estimated one-third of the world’s population, and kills two million people worldwide per year, most people who have it remain symptom-free. But when it does strike, it can be difficult to stop.
The infection, caused by
bacteria, is often deadly and usually attacks the lungs, sometimes causing respiratory failure in those with weak immune systems. But with a recent discovery, BNL scientists said they are on the road to finding a way to quash the infection once and for all: they think they have found a way to kill the bacteria that causes tuberculosis without also damaging the body’s immune system, as most known cures typically do.
When a person is infected with the disease, his or her immune system usually keeps the tuberculosis bacteria in check with the help of cells that produce compounds, like nitric oxide, that damage the invasive bacteria’s proteins. If allowed to accumulate, the damaged proteins eventually kill the tuberculosis bacteria, according to scientists.