An aerial view of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

Courtesy Fermilab

The Big Bang in the Lab

The world of subatomic particle studies is paradoxical. Scientists use some of the world's largest­ machines to study some of the smallest particles we know about. The devices they use are extremely sophisticated and precise, yet they rely on an almost violent approach. These methods and devices allow scientists to catch a glimpse of what the early universe might have looked like.

The way scientists look at the tiny particles of matter that make up subatomic particles like protons and neutrons is both elegant and primitive. They smash subatomic particles against each other really hard and look at the pieces that are left over. To do this, they have to use powerful machines called particle accelerators.

­Particle accelerators shoot opposing beams of subatomic particles like protons at each other. Some accelerators are circular, while others are linear. They can be very big -- circular accelerators can measure miles across in diameter. The accelerators use banks of magnets to accelerate the proton beams as they travel through tiny tubes. Once the proton beams reach a certain velocity, the accelerator guides them into a collision course. When the particles collide, they break apart into their component parts -- such as quarks.

These subatomic particles decay in fractions of a second. Only by using powerful computers can scientists hope to detect the presence of a quark. In 2006, a team of scientists at the University of California, Riverside reported detecting a top quark, the most massive of the six kinds of quarks. The team had used a particle accelerator to cause a collision between a proton and an anti-proton. They detected the presence of the quark after it had already decayed. The decay process left an identifiable electronic signature [source: University of California, Riverside].

Does this mean scientists can recreate the big bang? Not quite. Instead, scientists hope they can simulate the condition of the earliest moments of the universe. That involves creating a hot, dense area of matter and energy. By studying these conditions, scientists might be able to learn more about how our universe developed. But they can't recreate the period of rapid expansion that we call the big bang.

At least, not yet.

To learn more about the big bang and other scientific theories, take a look at the links on the next page.