Did magnetism shape the universe? An epic experiment suggests it did

The idea that magnetism helped shape the universe has been dismissed by scientists for decades, but now new experiments involving plasma that is hotter than the sun are prompting a rethink

Space 5 October 2022

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Andy Gilmore

THERE are few places on Earth where conditions get as extreme as they do at the National Ignition Facility near Los Angeles. At its heart, 192 lasers are trained on a gold cylinder roughly the size of an AA battery. As the beams converge, the temperature in the test chamber leaps to 100 million oC, hotter than the centre of the sun.

The facility was built to investigate the possibility of harnessing nuclear fusion, which promises unlimited clean energy. But earlier this year, researchers announced that its powerful lasers have also been directed at a different kind of big question – what shaped the universe?

The cosmos is a beautiful place. At the largest scales, a vast web of matter is woven throughout space. Zoom in and you see galaxies cluster in billowing clouds, while the individual galaxies themselves come in a wondrous array of shapes, including elegant spirals like that of our Milky Way.

For decades, it has been thought that only gravity has what it takes to sculpt such wonders. Now, hot on the heels of a slew of intriguing galactic observations, laser-fired experiments are throwing up hints that we may have wrongly dismissed the influence of another force.

Magnetism has always been considered too weak to be a cosmic sculptor. But those behind the latest results claim that in the white heat of the test chamber, they have caught a glimpse of how this forgotten force can be turbocharged. If so, we might have to find a new place for magnetism, alongside gravity, in our picture of how the cosmos came to look the way it …

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