Probing the Properties of Quark-Gluon Plasma

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Experimentalists at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider create exploding droplets of quark-gluon plasma, the stuff which filled the universe for the first microseconds after the big bang. I'll give one theorist's perspective on what we are learning about the properties of quark-gluon plasma from these experiments, including the conclusion that it is closer to an ideal liquid than to an ideal gas and the observation that it "quenches" high energy quarks ("jets") trying to plow through it. The static properties of quark-gluon plasma can be calculated from first principles, but we have no rigorous calculations of what QCD predicts for the viscosity and jet quenching ability of the evidently very strongly interacting quark-gluon plasma that RHIC has discovered. In desperation, theorists are resorting to calculating the properties of quark-gluon plasma in theories other than QCD, wherein difficult dynamical questions like how does a strongly interacting plasma quench jets can be answered by doing easy string theory calculations. I will discuss two examples where such calculations have been compared quantitatively to inferences drawn from existing RHIC data, and close with one prediction for data to come.