Experimental and Theoretical Challenges in the Search for the Quark Gluon Plasma: The STAR Collaboration's Critical Assessment of the Evidence from RHIC Collisions
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.