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Visualizing Strange Matter



Ever since I mentioned Strange Matter in a presentation, and mentioned how it could be applied inside film, I really wanted to dive into it further. So here is a breakdown on how you replicate or intimate this form of matter in your chosen VFX software.


What is Strange Matter?


Strange matter is a type of hypothetical matter. This means that this matter could exist in our current Universe, but has not been observed directly yet.


This type of matter would be made up of the smallest known particles. These are quarks. Quarks are classified into six different groups or members. These are up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom quarks. In normal matter, quarks exist in groups of three. For example, a proton has two up quarks and one down quark. The types of combination of quarks can vary per particle.


Hypothetically, Strange Matter would be made up of three different quarks. One up, down, and strange. However, this would only happen under extreme heat conditions. Such as inside a neutron star Neutron stars are dying stars that are extremely heavy. On average they are 10-29 times heavier than our sun. At their core, atoms themselves collapse, and their quarks get released into the density of the star. So as you can see, it is a very unstable form of matter.


One huge danger of strange matter is that hypothetically it can turn normal matter into strange matter if it comes into contact with it. So fingers crossed, neutron stars never release it from it’s core, into our Universe. Two of the only ways this could happen is by two neutron stars colliding with each other, or with a blackhole. This would then release strange particles (Strangelets), into the Universe.


A neutron star with quark matter at the center of it, is called a hybrid star. However, these stars have not been observed directly yet.  Just because we have no idea how much pressure and density it would take at the center of a star to break apart quark matter. It Is estimated that the density would have to be less than 100 times nuclear saturation density. This measurement is based around the internal density of a nucleus. However, scientists are attempting to look for signatures that these density levels exist in stars.


Strangelets are particles that can vary in length. They could be as short as a few femtometers to as large as a few kilometers. Strange matter is also thought to be a superconducting material.


Something important to note is in physics, the term “strange matter” is used in two different contexts. One to describe matter that is “strange”, and to describe strange matter. The two are very different, but for this article we are going to focus on the latter.


Because we haven’t observed any particles that are smaller than a quark, it is thought that quark matter is the true ground state of all matter. This means that the possibility of strange matter existing or having previously existed in our Universe might be likely. As there are only so many combinations of quarks you can do. Since quarks might be the ground state of the universe, they might also be the most stable particles in the universe. So they would choose under certain circumstances how they would decay. This process is called The Strange Matter Hypothesis. 


Particles, and Possible Detection


As mentioned above there are several particles involved in the creation of strange matter. 


Recap: Quarks and Leptons are the basic building blocks of matter. They are considered elementary particles, and there are six “flavors of quarks. Up, down, strange, charm, bottom, and top.


Together, these elementary particles make up all Mesons and Baryons in the Universe. As of now there are over 200 recorded types of Mesons and Baryons. These are particle categories based on how their quark structure is compiled. A particle with two quarks is classified as a Meson, and a particle with three quarks is classified as a Baryon. For example, Protons and Neutrons are particles that are classified as Baryons, and they are made up of up and down quarks. Up and down quarks are the most common type of quark. 


Strange quarks were first discovered in 1947. Scientists were observing how cosmic rays interacted with different materials and each other. They discovered the particles they were observing lasted longer than expected. This also led to the discovery of the Lambda particle which is a baryon made up of an up, down, and strange quark.


In 1974, the discovery of a new meson, and the charm quark. This particle is known as the J/Psi particle. It has a mass over three times of a Proton, and is made up of a charm and anti charm quark.


Another Meson was discovered in 1977 at the Fermi lab. This Meson is called the Upsilon Meson, and it is special in the sense that it is made up of a bottom and anti-bottom quark.


These are just some examples of the different types of Meson and Baryons out there. As you might have noticed, there is an “anti” version of some of the quarks. These antiquarks are considered the opposite of regular quarks. The opposite of regular matter is called antimatter. It is thought that every single particle in the Universe has an antiparticle. They have the opposite charge and sign of their counterparts. 


These particles all fit into the current quark model.


Observing quarks is rather difficult. You can’t observe an isolated quark, because of its color force. The Color Force is an attribute of a quark that holds multiple quarks together in a nucleus. The Color Force does not let them go, and if it does, the energy produced by the separation creates quark and antiquark pairs. 


Now, onto Strangelets! Strangelets are the theoretical particles that are fragments of strange matter. It is thought that they are made up of an equal number of up, down, and strange quarks. The term “Strangelet” was first created in 1984 by Edward Farhi and Robert Jaffe.


The stability of strangelets depends on their size. Smaller strands of strangelets have more surface tension against the vacuum of space than large ones. However, the exact amount of this surface tension is unknown. Large pieces of strange matter are electronically neutral in their center, and only carry a charge on their outer edges. Large strangelets are also more unstable than smaller ones.


We’ve mentioned that strange matter could exist at the center of neutron stars, however there are three possible ways they could exist in nature. 


It is hypothesized that in the early days of the Universe, strangelets were created with neutrons and protons. These strangelets then drifted around in the molten soup that was the Universe, and then broke down. Another theory is that the Universe is full of cosmic rays, and these rays could create strangelets when they collide with neutron stars. Or ultra high energy rays could create strangelets if they were to collide with a planet's atmosphere. Overall, it is thought that a high energy collision could produce these particles. 


The Strange Matter Hypothesis


The Strange Matter Hypothesis is based around the behavior of particles containing strange quarks. Most particles containing strange quarks are unstable. This is because strange quarks are heavier than up and down quarks, and they can also randomly decay. For example, the Lambda particle always loses its strangeness. It then decays into lighter particles which only contain up and down quarks.


It is thought that condensed states of matter with a large number of quarks might not be unstable, and strange quark matter would last longer than expected. This hypothesis is the backbone of The Strange Matter Hypothesis. It was first proposed by Arnold Bodmer and Edward Witten. According to this theory, when a large amount of quarks clump together, their lowest energy state will contain an equal number of up, down, and strange quarks. Which together form a strangelet. 


According to The Strange Matter Hypothesis, strangelets would be more stable than regular nuclei, and nuclei would be expected to decay into strangelets.  But this process would be extremely slow. However, this process would be so slow, that it puts a huge amount of doubt into The Strange Matter Hypothesis. If this process would occur, the breakdown of nuclei into strangelets would be longer than the lifetime of the entire Universe.


3D Representations and Simulations 


So how would we detect strange matter if it existed, and how would we predict it’s interaction with our planet if we were to ever come into contact with it? 


There are a few things the scientific community is doing to make sure we can detect strangelets, and predict the creation of these particles.


One of the ways to find these particles is looking for their exotic remains. If strangelets were to break down, they would leave behind trace quarks, and electromagnetic signatures in space. If strange quark matter was stable, it would be detectable as a neutral and massive state of quarks drifting in space.


Currently, we do have a device in space that could detect strange matter heading towards Earth. This device is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer(AMS) on the International Space Station.


Scientists have also done simulations of strange stars to see how they would merge together, or release strange matter into the Universe. In 2009, scientists in Germany started to create three-dimensional relativistic hydrodynamical simulations on the HLRB II SGI Altix 4700 machine at the Leibniz-Rechenzentrum. (Which is a supercomputing center operated by the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities) They were able to create some observable signatures of strangelets and gravitational wave measurements of strange matter. Through their experiments, they concluded that the possibility of strange matter existing in our Universe is real.


In August 2017, NASA’s Swift, Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra telescopes were able to detect the light from two neutron stars colliding. This was the first recorded event of the collision between these stars. They were located about 130 light years from Earth, and orbited each other so closely that they produced gravitational ripples through space. When they finally collided, they released a burst of gamma rays, and produced a burst of light called a kilonova. Because of this event, scientists now have a comprehensive set of observations regarding the collision of neutron stars.


Where Could I Apply It in Film?


Unfortunately, there aren't too many examples of strange matter in Houdini. However, there is one artist I know who has attempted to create neutron stars in the software. His name is Jeremy Joswick. He is a VFX artist who works professionally in the industry in California. He has made several scientific visualizations of space structures in his spare time. You can find his creations on his vimeo: HERE. As well as the neutron star: HERE.


However, you can incorporate the ideas of strange matter into superhero films, and your effects surrounding these characters. 


Superhero logic is never accurate, but it’s our job as artists to make them make sense. So let’s take a look at one of the hardest to represent superhero groups in films. The Fantastic Four. The Fantastic Four is one of the only superhero origin stories mentioning cosmic rays, and radiation from outer space. So we could hypothesize that maybe strange matter hit The Fantastic Four, and their powers are based on the interaction with these particles. So as an effects artist, we could look into how strange matter and strangelets are represented in science, and then build them in a 3D space. We could also add strange matter equations in the background of these character’s environments.


We still don’t know how regular matter changes when it interacts with strange matter, so we could suggest that these character’s atoms are now strange. Mr. Fantastic’s stretching ability could just be an optical illusion because his body is moving at a different rate than regular matter. The Invisible Woman could be invisible because she is made of dark matter. (Which is a type of matter that we still don’t know which type of particles it contains. Bosons and strangelets are hypothesized to be behind it.) The Human Torch could have the heat and density of a neutron star. Finally,...I’ll be honest, I’m not sure where we could stretch science with The Thing.




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