Even casual science observers are likely aware of the Higgs boson, affectionately known as the God particle, which some physicists theorize gives all particles mass. Observers might also have an inkling that scientists thought they had found bits of matter -- neutrinos -- that looked as though they could travel faster than light, but that the observation may have been the result of some bad wiring.
The Higgs boson and scene-stealing neutrinos grab headlines, but physicists are working on other fascinating experiments that could impact our daily lives and provide fundamental insights into the nature of the universe. Here's a roundup of a few of the notable findings and lingering questions in the field of physics:
Electrons To Order
On March 14, researchers from Stanford University announced in the journal Nature that they were able to manipulate electrons into a honeycomb shape by carefully placing carbon monoxide atoms on a sheet of copper.
Precisely positioned carbon monoxide molecules (black) guide electrons (yellow-orange) into a nearly perfect honeycomb pattern called molecular graphene. Image courtesy of Hari Manoharan/Stanford University.
The supersmall structure allows electrons to move around with very little resistance and could be used to create new kinds of wires, diodes, and transistors for ultrafast electronics.The scientists drew inspiration from graphene, a thin sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice that won co-discoverers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics.
Hari Manoharan, who led the latest research, said this new form of molecular graphene can be manipulated, one advantage over carbon-based structures.
With regular graphene, thanks to the particular bonds formed by carbon, you're stuck with what nature gives you, Manoharan explained.
But the Stanford scientists were able to stretch and manipulate their honeycomb of electrons using a scanning tunneling microscope, which terminates in a needlelike point just one atom wide. Researchers could even make different arrangements such as triangular lattices.
Electrons move through the molecular graphene arrangement as if they were moving at the speed of light in a vacuum, suggesting a practical application for molecular graphene: smaller and more efficient electronics.
Normally, when electrons move through metals and semiconductors, they bump into all sorts of tiny imperfections, slowing them down and generating heat, according to Manoharan.
The promise of graphene in electronics is that electrons like to go around defects and obstacles rather than bounce back, and hence resistance is greatly reduced, Manoharan said.
However, sticking molecular graphene in a smartphone isn't going to be easy.
Keep in mind that we're doing this in a very painstaking fashion, assembling these one atom at a time, Manoharan said. You can't mass-produce a computer chip assembling it atom by atom.
Gold Pancakes: The Key Ingredient In A Very Primordial Soup
What happens to matter heated 100,000 times hotter than the center of the sun?
It becomes a liquid that previously only existed 10 millionths of a second after the Big Bang.
At the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., scientists use a device called the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or RHIC, to smash the nuclei of gold atoms together at close to the speed of light. At that speed, the atoms stretch out into thin pancakelike formations.
End view of a collision of two 30-billion electron-volt gold beams in the STAR detector at the RHIC at Brookhaven. The beams travel in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light before colliding. Image courtesy of the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
What we do at RHIC is we try to recreate the conditions that existed in the early universe, said Paul Sorenson, a researcher at Brookhaven.
The resulting collision briefly liquefies the center or nucleus of the gold atom. Protons and neutrons of the gold nucleus rip apart into quarks and gluons. For a brief period of time -- an incredibly small fraction of a second -- the quarks and gluons exist as a liquid called quark gluon plasma.
This plasma is more fluid than any naturally occurring liquid, according to Raju Venugopalan, a theorist at Brookhaven.
It's the hottest matter we can create on Earth, Venugopalan said.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the nature of the quark-gluon plasma. One big first step physicists would like to take is to directly observe the liquid, instead of discerning its existence from the scattered debris after it decays.
We want to catch the plasma red-handed, Sorensen said.
Thinking Fourth-Dimensionally -- And Beyond
String theorists think there could be more to existence than meets the eye, and physicists are hard at work to see if the theory is true.
We think there may be more dimensions, located very, very near each other, said Nikos Varelas, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a researcher at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill.
If extra dimensions exist, curled up in infinitely tiny spirals right under our noses, Varelas said, some long-standing puzzles involving gravity could be explained.
Four fundamental forces occur in nature. The strong force binds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of an atom; electromagnetism describes interactions between charged particles; the weak force enables the nucleus of an unstable atom to get rid of excess energy through radiation; and gravity, the weakest of the four, describes how strongly objects attract other objects depending on their mass.
The weakness of gravity is actually a good thing for everyday living. If it were the strongest force, the bonds between the atoms of a sidewalk wouldn't be strong enough to keep gravity from pulling a person straight through to the center of the Earth.
Some theorists speculate that the graviton, a hypothetical particle believed to be a carrier of gravitational force, is spread throughout many dimensions. This would affect our ability to measure gravity and make it appear to be weaker than it actually is.
We see only part of the story in our three-dimensional world, Varelas said.
Physicists working at Fermilab's Tevatron accelerator and at other facilities are observing collisions between particles and looking for signs that gravitons are flicking in and out of our observable dimensions into another spatial dimension.
Unfortunately, the Tevatron was shut down last September because of federal budget cuts. But the work goes on at Stanford, Brookhaven, and the international research center CERN in Switzerland.
And physicists from all over the world are meeting this summer to share the latest results from CERN's Large Hadron Collider -- including, perhaps, a glimpse of the God particle.