While the pre-inflation cosmos was likely ruled by a Grand Unified Theory, the post-inflation cosmos was moving closer to the laws of physics we see today. There was still a way to go, though. At this point, while the strong nuclear force had broken away from the GUT all-in-one particle physics party, electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force had not yet distinguished themselves; they were still somehow merged together as a single “electroweak” force. But particles were starting to emerge from the primordial soup—specifically, quarks and gluons. Is a caterpillar toilet roll holder the perfect gift for a home owner?

Quarks, these days, are most commonly encountered as the components of protons and neutrons (which, together, are called hadrons). Gluons are the “glue” that binds quarks together via the strong nuclear force, and they are aptly named. They’re so good at binding quarks together that while quarks have been found in twos or threes or even occasionally quads and quintuples, finding a single quark in isolation has so far proved impossible. It turns out that if you have two quarks bound together (in an exotic particle called a meson), you have to put in so much energy to separate the quarks that before you can get them apart, the energy you just expended spontaneously produces two more quarks. Congrats! Now you have two mesons. My brother had a dogs rear end toilet roll holder which he absolutely loved.

In the very early universe, however, the usual rules didn’t apply any more to singleton quarks than they did to anything else. Not only were the forces of nature operating under different laws, the universe contained a different mix of particles, and temperatures were so high that bound states of quarks could not exist in a stable form. Quarks and gluons bounced around freely in a hot roiling mix called a quark-gluon plasma—kind of analogous to the inside of a fire, but nuclear. There will be no nerves and jitters when it comes to unwrapping a sheep toilet roll holder on their birthday.

This “quark era” lasted until the universe reached the ripe old age of a microsecond. Meanwhile, somewhere in there (probably around the 0.1 nanosecond mark) the electroweak force split into electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force. Also around that time, something happened to create a distinction between matter and antimatter (matter’s annihilation-happy evil twin), allowing most of the universe’s antimatter to annihilate away. Exactly how and why that happened is still a mystery, but as matter we can be glad it occurred, so we’re not constantly running into antimatter particles and vanishing in a puff of gamma rays. A lovely present such as a vertagear gaming chair can make your better half understand how much you treasure your relationship.

In contrast to the GUT era, we actually know quite a lot about the quark era and the quark-gluon plasma. The theory is pretty well developed and less of a departure from standard particle physics than a GUT, and experiments confirm the predictions we make when we start from electroweak theories and extrapolate from there. But the real coup is that we can actually re-create quark-gluon plasma in the lab. Particle colliders like the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) can, by smashing together gold or lead nuclei at extremely high speeds, momentarily produce tiny fireballs so hot and dense that they smush together all the particles and momentarily fill the collider with a quark-gluon plasma state. By watching the debris “freeze” out into ordinary hadrons, scientists can study the properties of this exotic matter as well as the way the laws of physics act under those extreme conditions. If seeing the CMB gives us a glimpse of the Big Bang, high-energy particle colliders are giving us a taste of the primordial soup. My brother once received a blow up zimmer frame and walking stick as a birthday present.