Quantum chromodynamics (QCD) is the theory of the strong interaction, explaining (for example) the binding of three almost massless quarks into a much heavier proton or neutron-and thus most of the mass of the visible Universe. The standard model of particle physics predicts a QCD-related transition that is relevant for the evolution of the early Universe. At low temperatures, the dominant degrees of freedom are colourless bound states of hadrons (such as protons and pions). However, QCD is asymptotically free, meaning that at high energies or temperatures the interaction gets weaker and weaker, causing hadrons to break up. This behaviour underlies the predicted cosmological transition between the low-temperature hadronic phase and a high-temperature quark-gluon plasma phase (for simplicity, we use the word 'phase' to characterize regions with different dominant degrees of freedom). Despite enormous theoretical effort, the nature of this finite-temperature QCD transition (that is, first-order, second-order or analytic crossover) remains ambiguous. Here we determine the nature of the QCD transition using computationally demanding lattice calculations for physical quark masses. Susceptibilities are extrapolated to vanishing lattice spacing for three physical volumes, the smallest and largest of which differ by a factor of five. This ensures that a true transition should result in a dramatic increase of the susceptibilities. No such behaviour is observed: our finite-size scaling analysis shows that the finite-temperature QCD transition in the hot early Universe was not a real phase transition, but an analytic crossover (involving a rapid change, as opposed to a jump, as the temperature varied). As such, it will be difficult to find experimental evidence of this transition from astronomical observations.
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