Friday, January 11, 2013

An Absolutely Chilling Start to 2013

The title of this article refers not to the temperature in my neck of the woods: Montreal, Canada.  The mild weather here (6 degrees Celsius) makes one question whether the season is winter.  Neither does the title refer to the average temperature on planet Earth, which continues to rise steadily.  This article is about exciting new research being conducted at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, where Ulrich Schneider and others have brought the temperature of some Potassium atoms to sub-zero... Kelvin.

Like me, you were probably taught in some introductory science course that the minimum temperature for matter of any kind was zero Kelvin, a temperature called 'absolute zero' (corresponds to -273.15 degrees Celsius - slightly colder than a bad day in Winnipeg).  The Kelvin scale is based on this minimum measurement.

We often find in science that certain boundaries may be crossed.  What Schneider and his colleagues have done is helped coax a gas to sub-absolute-zero temperatures, if only for a short while.  As many 20th and 21st century science discoveries, this phenomenon centers around quantum physics, which correctly asserts that things are not quite as they seem.  Unlike Newtonian physics, which incorrectly assumes that the state of matter has one absolute value, quantum physics views matter in the way of probability functions.  Without getting too deep into that now, let us agree for the moment that quantum physics is bizarre and not intuitive 100% of the time.

The research, published in Science, describes the process whereby an ultracold quantum gas is lured below 0 K by establishing a magnetic field within it, causing the individual atoms to attract one another rather than repel.  “This suddenly shifts the atoms from their most stable, lowest-energy state to the highest possible energy state, before they can react,” says Schneider.  “It’s like walking through a valley, then instantly finding yourself on the mountain peak.”

While this apparent minimum temperature is temporarily violated, the 'matter behaving badly' may be temporarily studied.  Such studies may reveal physics phenomena that have yet to be observed.  Schneider points out that sub-zero K matter behaves in a similar manner to dark matter, the mysterious stuff that much of our universe appears to consist of.

This research follows a typical pattern in science and technology.  Technology in materials and lasers made this research possible.  The new science that is discovered will no doubt spawn spin-off technologies, and on it goes.  As scientific boundaries continue to be pushed up against, the universe continues to spit up new clues to pursue and new questions to investigate.  Science is a paradise for those who enjoy a good mystery.

All this talk of cold has me craving some hot cocoa.  If the thermostat reads sub-zero values where you happen to be, just be thankful the scale is not Kelvin.

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