Just after the big bang the universe was too hot and dense for the existence of familiar particles such as protons and neutrons. Instead, their constituents – the quarks and gluons – roamed freely in a "particle soup" called quark-gluon plasma.
In 1986 CERN began to accelerate heavy ions – nuclei containing many neutrons and protons – in the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) to study the possibility that quark gluon-plasma was more than just a theory. The aim was to "deconfine" quarks – set them free from their confinement within atoms - by smashing the heavy ions into appropriate targets.
The first experiments used relatively light nuclei such as oxygen and sulphur, and produced results consistent with the quark-gluon plasma theory, but no real proof. In 1994 a second generation of experiments began with lead ions, and by 2000 there was compelling evidence that a new state of matter had been seen.