Experimental and theoretical challenges in the search for the quark-gluon plasma: The STAR Collaboration's critical assessment of the evidence from RHIC collisions
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We review the most important experimental results from the first three years of nucleus-nucleus collision studies at RHIC, with emphasis on results from the STAR experiment, and we assess their interpretation and comparison to theory. The theory-experiment comparison suggests that central Au + Au collisions at RHIC produce dense, rapidly thermalizing matter characterized by: (1) initial energy densities above the critical values predicted by lattice QCD for establishment of a quark-gluon plasma (QGP); (2) nearly ideal fluid flow, marked by constituent interactions of very short mean free path, established most probably at a stage preceding hadron formation; and (3) opacity to jets. Many of the observations are consistent with models incorporating QGP formation in the early collision stages, and have not found ready explanation in a hadronic framework. However, the measurements themselves do not yet establish unequivocal evidence for a transition to this new form of matter. The theoretical treatment of the collision evolution, despite impressive successes, invokes a suite of distinct models, degrees of freedom and assumptions of as yet unknown quantitative consequence. We pose a set of important open questions, and suggest additional measurements, at least some of which should be addressed in order to establish a compelling basis to conclude definitively that thermalized, deconfined quark-gluon matter has been produced at RHIC. 2005 Published by Elsevier B.V.