The calculation, performed by Germany’s JUGENE supercomputer, would have taken a typical laptop more than two centuries to complete.
“When you go from first principles, you are not tuning your model to match the complicated objects you are seeking; you are calculating the objects from the starting point of the most basic interactions between particles,” said Lee, who collaborated with Evgeny Epelbaum, Hermann Krebs, Ulf-G. Meissner and Timo Laehde.
Like a bent arm, the Hoyle state takes the shape of an obtuse triangle with an alpha particle at each vertex. The nucleus’s surplus energy enables its alpha clusters to stretch farther apart from one another than the clusters in ground-state carbon-12, which draw together in a tight equilateral triangle.
Martin Freer, an experimental nuclear physicist at the University of Birmingham, said that knowing the structure of the atomic nucleus will help explain the rates and mechanisms by which it transforms into other states, begetting many of the other elements in the universe. The calculation helps explain why the Hoyle state exists and also promises to reveal just how fine-tuned the universe is for life. “If the Hoyle state were not to exist, neither would we, and even if its energy were slightly different, life would have had to have found an alternate route,” Freer said.
By increasing the resolution of the 3-D lattice in their simulation, Lee and his colleagues hope to refine their picture of the Hoyle state and better understand the physics that makes life possible. “We always want to solve the big questions that intrigue us about ourselves,” Lee said. “When life is at stake, then it becomes interesting.”
Reprinted with permission from Simons Science News, an editorially-independent division of SimonsFoundation.org. Its mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the computational, physical and life sciences.