Woman Physicist of the Month talks Big Bang

Helen Caines, an associate professor of physics, was recently named the American Physical Society Woman Physicist of the Month for January. Professor Caines researches relativistic heavy ion collisions, which try to recreate the instant after the Big Bang. Apart from her research, which takes her as far as the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Caines teaches the fall semester of Physics 120: Quantum

Helen Caines.
Helen Caines.

Physics and Beyond.

Q: What area of physics do you work in?

A: I work in a crossover between nuclear and particle physics, which is called relativistic heavy ion physics. I do work at the accelerators RHIC [Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider] at the Brookhaven Laboratory over on Long Island and at the LHC [Large Hadron Collider, in Geneva].

Q: What does your research in relativistic heavy ion physics involve?

A: What I do is instead of colliding protons together … we collide gold nuclei together, or lead nuclei. A lead nucleus is made up of protons and neutrons, and protons and neutrons are made up of quarks and gluons. And what we try and do is collide them at very high energies so that they essentially melt into just free quarks and gluons and make a new state of matter called the quark-gluon plasma. First of all, we were trying to show that this is what happens. We think we have shown that, and now we are trying to learn more about what this new state of matter is like and then about how it cools down and expands and forms back into the particles that we see around us today.

Q: Do these collisions simulate a natural phenomenon?

A: We are trying to simulate what you would expect to see in the first few microseconds after the Big Bang.

Q: What have been your most significant research findings in this area?

A: First of all, we showed that the quark-gluon plasma exists, and surprisingly it turns out that it is almost what we call a perfect fluid, that is, it has zero viscosity. This is much less viscous than water, which was surprising to us at the beginning. We still don’t fully understand how the matter interacts, but we are slowly getting there.

Q: Do you anticipate staying in this area of research in the near future?

A: For now I am probably going to stay in mostly this area because the LHC has only just turned on, so we are just getting our first data from there. It’s going to take us a few years or several years to take the data and digest what we have learned.

Q: How did you become interested in this subfield?

A: I did it for my Ph.D., and one of my graduate professors got me interested.

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

A: I’d like to say thank you again to the [past and present students] that nominated me. It was a really great Christmas present!

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