Did magnetism shape the universe? An epic experience suggests so


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


October 5, 2022

Andy Gilmore

There are few places on Earth where conditions get as extreme as the National Ignition Facility near Los Angeles. At its heart, 192 lasers are formed on a golden cylinder roughly the size of an AA battery. When the beams converge, the temperature in the test chamber rises to 100 million oC, hotter than the center of the sun.

The facility was built to study the possibility of harnessing nuclear fusion, which promises unlimited clean energy. But earlier this year, researchers announced that its powerful lasers had also been aimed at another 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 into space. Zoom in and you see galaxies clustering together in puffy 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 was thought that only gravity had what it takes to sculpt such wonders. Now, on the heels of a series of intriguing galactic sightings, laser experiments suggest we may have mistakenly dismissed the influence of another force.

Magnetism has always been considered too weak to be a cosmic sculptor. But those behind the latest results say that in the white heat of the test chamber, they glimpsed how this forgotten force can be turbocharged. If so, we may need to find a new place for magnetism, alongside gravity, in our picture of how the cosmos has come to look like it…


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