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Particle physics er. This property of QCD is called asymptotic
freedom. In a high-energy collision, the key
Liberating quarks and gluons events that control the large-scale flow of
energy and momentum are brief, violent
Frank Wilczek
accelerations of the particles. Because of
asymptotic freedom, these events occur
n extraordinary new state of matter, According to QCD, particles that carry almost as if the quarks and gluons were free

A the quark–gluon plasma, may have
been produced. In collisions between
high-energy heavy nuclei, conditions like
uncompensated colour charge call forth
such strong forces that they spontaneously
ionize empty space. One might say that they
and unconfined, so the energy and momen-
tum distribution follows a pattern imprinted
by the quarks and gluons (Fig.1).
those 0.01 seconds after the Big Bang are cause a colour lightning storm. When the In a quark–gluon plasma, liberation of
reproduced — though only on a small scale storm subsides, all the colour charges have quarks and gluons is taken to a new level. At
and briefly. Temperatures of 1012 K or more been neutralized. The strongly interacting low particle densities, each coloured particle
are achieved, roughly ten million times that at particles that experimenters can actually is bound up with its neutralizing partners,
the surface of the Sun, or ten thousand times observe are composites of several quarks and inside some ordinary hadron (Fig. 2a). At
that in the solar core. Theorists predict that gluons, arranged into structures with com- high particle densities the hadrons start to
under these conditions there is a drastic pensating colour charges, so that they are overlap, and cease to exist as meaningful
change in the structure of nuclear matter. The neutral overall. The most important types individuals. Indeed, a particle needing a
usual description in terms of baryons (such as are baryons, which can be constructed from mate no longer finds it necessary to stay
protons and neutrons) and mesons (such as three quarks; antibaryons, constructed from married to a particular partner, since there
pions) must be abandoned in favour of a three antiquarks; and mesons, constructed are always plenty of eligible singles nearby
description involving the truly fundamental from a quark and an antiquark. (Fig. 2b). The meaningful units are then
particles, quarks and gluons. Experiments Quarks and gluons themselves carry quarks and gluons, not hadrons.
last year have provided the first substantial uncompensated colour charge, and there-
evidence that such a change in fact occurs1–3. fore, according to QCD, cannot exist in isola-
To put these developments in perspec- tion — they are ‘confined’. Nevertheless, to –
q q
tive, let me sketch some of the background. modern physicists quarks and gluons are –
q q
Quantum chromodynamics (QCD) is the quite real and tangible objects, no less than –
modern theory of the strong interaction4 — (say) electrons. Indeed, quarks and gluons
the most powerful force of nature, responsi- have quite distinct signatures (Fig. 1). They c
ble for holding atomic nuclei together, and can do so, despite being confined, because of
for most of what goes on in high-energy the special nature of the forces among them.
accelerators. QCD is verified by dozens or The powerful confinement forces only come b

perhaps hundreds of experimental tests5,6. into play when colour charges are taken far q
q –
But it is a most peculiar theory: its funda- apart from one another, and they take some q
mental particles, the quarks and gluons, have time to set in. When the colour balance is q
never been observed in isolation. Indeed, the disturbed by sudden, small-scale motions, to –
q –
theory predicts that they never will be. begin with the colour forces are much weak- c

a c
Gluon c

J/c production (continuum = 1)


q –
q q

b d


4 6 8 10
12 Effective temperature (arbitrary scale)
E (GeV)

8 Figure 2 Confinement and deconfinement. When
4 the surrounding quarks and gluons are contained
0.8 in colour-neutral hadrons (a), the charm quark
0 0.4 and antiquark that make up a J/c particle must
300 0
200 –0.4 also stay paired, so that their colour charges
φ (de 100 –0.8
g ) 0 cancel out. But if the surrounding quarks and
gluons run free (b), the components of the J/c
readily make and break bonds with other
Figure 1 Realization of quarks and gluons as jets. A Z-boson decay into quark and antiquark (a) is particles, and the J/c particles dissociate much
reflected in the jets of compound particles observed (b). When the Z-boson instead decays into quark, more quickly. A rapid decrease in J/c production
antiquark and gluon (c), the observed energy and angle distribution of the products (d) again follows with effective temperature has been seen by the
the pattern set by the underlying quarks and gluons. (Parts b and d from ref. 9.) NA50 experiment10 at CERN (c).

330 Nature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 1998 NATURE | VOL 391 | 22 JANUARY 1998

in Quark–Gluon Plasma 2 (ed. it will release a laser-like pion beam8. and other details. 8 particles and come in three types — with pos. 7. But in some amputees. 1995). The investi- Already. Rajagopal. he brain often reorganizes itself after neurons devoted to a missing hand or foot Despite the dramatic nature of these predicted changes. of course. http://www. Rev. is continuous or truly are much lighter and therefore much easier to change in the structure of matter sets in over abrupt. This. Gavin. energy can go to. Burrows.gif freedom. down and nets. This certainly suggests as a so-called phantom limb8. ry of the missing limb in the thalamus had they are the first that sceptical theorists7 have ries normally devoted to the hand. preprint hep-ph/9711289 on xxx. transition. Thus. This does not tell us how or where the sen- matter to quark–gluon plasma. S. there are eight gluons In particular. to appropriately localized sensations when sen- The experimenters are like inspectors touch on the face or arm2–6. Charm–quark/charm–antiquark pairs. it is not easy to establish experimentally that one has produced a T damage to some of its sensory It has sensations on the missing limb can some. Hwa. Institute for Advanced Study. Schmelling. as the energy has to be shared by many more particles. ing brain responses with microelectrodes light touch activated neurons recorded at ma. notable phantom sensations. 1. quark–gluon plasma. Difficulties arise remaining inputs1. Kaas plasma much less than it would the hadronic gas.10. Olden Lane. http://www. Singapore. To gauge the change. dom — the number of different particles that occurred in the early Universe. over months of recovery. If such events especially strange. B 1. What makes the or the face activates neurons in the arm or the the brain had reorganized so that the territo- latest results3 especially intriguing is that face territories in the After the loss of somato. Ambitious responses to this chal. the stimulated skin. play a part) and each has two possible spin More prosaically. preprint hep-ex/971002 on xxx. Phys. defining sensation fields. would not explain trigger zones. the newly reactivated neurons signal that the procedure for amputees with pain. in more ways than one. it is and supercooling are possible. directions. contributes to the misperception that some. and find it much more difficult to stay paired People with amputations often have the they electrically stimulated the same or near- once the energy in a fireball exceeds a thresh. Taking into account antiquarks. Anoth. or do they signal instead normal parts of the somatosensory thalamus lenge are being mounted at CERN and at the location of their original but missing and in that part of the thalamus where neu- Brookhaven. overleaf). but instead vation of neurons in this territory continued A big question left open by these experi. R. had matching receptive fields and sensation issue is muddied by the fact that the J/c parti. A logical interpretation of the missing limb produced sensations sharpness of the M. These are spinless We anticipate other relics of the quark– gluon plasma created in accelerators. As part of a therapeutic explosion to determine if it was due to con. thus old value (Fig. 327–343 (1997).gov quarks of three different types (up. where the heavy-ion accelerator source of activation? This question has been rons previously would have been activated RHIC will come into operation next summer. quark–gluon side. & Vogt. M. 1).ch/ we find 3232222 = 36 quark degrees of associated increase in multiplicity of particles. 78. For example. New Jersey 08540. Nucl. P. and because the plasma. H. the deconfinement mentioned above. point towards the plasma. On the fills space could reassemble incorrectly. become responsive to the sensory inputs not been able to explain without invoking a According to this view. Lett. gators determined the regions of skin where the first harbinger of the quark–gluon plas. the side of an arm amputee may produce sen.lanl. If it is abrupt (in the language of produce than the K mesons in which they are a narrow range of temperatures centred phase transitions. so that neurons that were responsive to the missing inputs come to respond to become recalibrated by experience so that they come to signal stimuli on remaining body parts such as the hand or face. F. has only a fleeting exis. is that the reactivated sations are strange — the other quarks are too massive to place. it would be reassuring to 8. Satz. et al. USA. stimulating ture whether one has hadrons or quark– sations both of those body parts and of the neurons with receptive fields on the stump of gluon plasma. they must Frank Wilczek is in the School of Natural Sciences. touching the face or remaining upper arm on fields. first order). to signal sensations on the missing limb. nevertheless the apparent missing hand9. 2c). even if produced. because the number of particles reaching sensory input from the 4. whereas the acti- quark–gluon plasma. 1006–1009 (1997). tackled by Karen Davis and colleagues (page by stimulating the missing limb. Lett. sory representations in the brain are stimu- who must examine the residue of a great When the brain reorganizes in this way. responsive. do lated electrically11. because the activated NATURE | VOL 391 | 22 JANUARY 1998 Nature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 1998 331 . as a function er possibility. see the predicted high specific heat.) 484–554 (World Scientific. neurons of the quark–gluon plasma. Neurobiology pared with the previous three. undeprived portions of been advocated for some time as a signature times be evoked by touching ‘trigger zones’ the somatosensory thalamus. the receptive fields of those neurons. M. for example. When such a domain snaps back into 6. ments is whether the transition from normal thing is touching the phantom hand. quark–antiquark condensate which normally 2. and could creation of a quark–gluon plasma should be instructive to compare the degrees of free. seem to patients with missing limbs (Fig. 177–209 (1982). itive. superheating normally confined. trigger explosive and the territo. and the 9. CERN has seen what might be 385 of this issue7) by recording and stimulat. Opal/events/qqg_lego. Gonin. responsive to touch on the hand becomes People without amputations report tence in a very small region. news and views Theorists calculate that this drastic of temperature. Furthermore. Annu. thereby defining making up the J/c family of particles. Abreu. preprint hep-ex/9705013 on xxx. placed in the somatosensory thalamus of various electrode locations. e-mail: wilczek@ias. but it would mean that the extensive brain the detectors after a heavy ion collision the region of the somatosensory cortex on reorganization that follows amputation is is extremely the important particles at these temperatures are just the pions (the other hadrons being too heavy). An especially intriguing possibility is that the Princeton. In the normal. Rev. On the hadronic side of the have appreciably perturbed its evolution. those with cles will be buffeted more at higher tempera. strange quarks and antiquarks 10. Even though the on other parts of the body. negative or zero electric charge. Davis ventional or nuclear weapons (or perhaps a sensations are coming from the location of and co-workers7 placed microelectrodes in meteorite). A direct con- sequence is that a given input of energy will Phantoms of the brain raise the temperature of a quark–gluon Jon H. K. So events following the around 1012 K. this type of brain from the stump of the arm. feeling that the missing limb is still present by neurons to produce each with two possible spin directions — thus 54 degrees of freedom altogether. 32.lanl. In addition. C. com.lanl. Sci. Wilczek. http://www. reorganization is not beneficial. however. these trigger zones is that touching the arm referred to the missing limb (Fig.gif & http://www. form. there are three colours of ing a domain analogous to domains in mag- 5. R. Phys. the opposite side of the brain that is normally potentially useful.