Bose-Einstein Condensate WTF?!

As quantum mechanics becomes more and more mainstream, with researchers at universities across the globe devoting time and energy to making its bizarre phenomena applicable to practical applications, I thought this a good time to take a quick gander at this strange science. Quantum mechanics certainly has a long and dignified history to it, extending back just over a hundred years to that eminent luminary, Albert Einstein, and his original ruminations on relativity. While many of his predictions came true in his lifetime, including the possibility of an atomic bomb, others had to wait nearly until the turn of the millennium before they were proven accurate.

While there continues to be a considerable disjoint between our observable world — where traditional Newtonian physics are generally accurate enough for day-to-day operations — and the world of the very… very… very small, the theories of quantum mechanics can still give us a fascinating, and more accurate description of how reality works. Among the most important of the equations developed to describe quantum activities is Werner Heisenberg’s famous “Uncertainty Principle”, an equation almost as misunderstood as Einstein’s own E=mc2:

ΔxΔp ≥ h / (4 π)

Where x is the position, p is the momentum, h is Planck’s constant and π is… π.

This formula effectively states that the more certainty you have for an atom’s position, the less certain you are about its momentum, and vice-versa. All of this comes about because of the wave-particle duality of particles. At the scales where quantum mechanics come into play, that is, at the level of atoms on down, objects do not work like solid billiard balls, but possess the characteristics of both particle and wave. Depending on how an observer (that is, the scientist or his equipment) chooses how to look at a particular atom, it can play either role.

Einstein and an associate of his, Satyendra Nath Bose, proposed that under certain scenarios, some types of particles, such as photons, could collapse into each other such that they could not be distinguished from one another. Later, Einstein took the idea a step further, and wrote a paper stating that whole atoms may be able to smoosh into other atoms to form a new state of matter altogether. As all of this would require temperatures of no more than one ten-thousandth of a degree above absolute zero, the idea of such a condensate was expected to remain just that – an idea. But a novel approach by scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder allowed for the first such Bose-Einstein Condensate to be created and observed.

Temperature, of course, is directly related to the average speed of atoms in a material. Drs Cornell and Wieman used carefully timed and controlled laser pulses to slow the movement of rubidium atoms, and, with the assistance of magnets to pull off the most active of the atoms in the study, they were able to slow 2,000 of the atoms to almost nothing; a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. According to Heisenberg, now that the momentum (speed and direction) of these atoms was practically certain, the uncertainty of their position must be (relatively) huge! And that’s just what Cornell and Wieman found.

The two scientists squished the supercooled and ghostly rubidium atoms together into a single, giant blob, which lasted nearly ten seconds before it disintegrated.

Physics gets weirder all the time.

More info:

Wikipedia entry for Bose-Einstein Condensate

BEC Homepage at University of Colorado @ Boulder

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

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4 Responses to Bose-Einstein Condensate WTF?!

  1. glaken says:

    Have you ever heard of the holographic universe? This might tie into your article.

    • I’ve certainly heard some of the more outlandish theories-that-cannot-be-proven, but by no means do I know them all. A few months ago, I read that some physicists even suggested for a time that there is only one “electron” in the entire universe. I could be mistaken, but I think I read that in Lawrence Krauss’ “A universe from nothing”… if so, it was not his idea, just a remark about other theories, similar to how I’ve put it here.

      I rather like the idea of the holographic universe, that everything truly is interconnected in some fashion that we are not currently aware of. The example with the two video cameras watching the single goldfish was certainly intriguing. It brings to mind Stephen Hawking’s fishbowl universe, as posed in The Grand Design:

      “Might not we ourselves also be inside some big goldfish bowl and have our vision distorted by an enormous lens? The goldfish’s picture of reality is different from ours, but can we be sure it is less real?

      Krauss and many other scientists have been making the claim that philosophy is dead. It is true that a great many philosophical questions have indeed been answered through scientific means. Scientific methods can only resolve problems that involve measurable data. If an idea can have no measureable quality to it, the claim goes, then the idea is not really worth consideration.

      The holographic universe is an idea that may have some merit, as it helps explain the weirdness of quantum entanglement. That entangled particles do change states instantaneously (or, at least, more quickly than our fastest measuring tools can identify) is a known fact, and this hypothesis is a possible explanation. But scientists need to devise methods to test that hypothesis before it can be approved and accepted. How could they test this theory?

      • glaken says:

        I think the definition of a theory is just that, it is a theory and not a fact. Most cutting edge math and science has yet to be proven and even more so put into a unified set of proofs. After being exposed to things like the double slit experiment or superposition in quantum physics or multidimensional physics (which you might find this article interesting: I think I have come to the conclusion that in our present state of being, we are unable to comprehend some of the higher forms of science, certainly as laid out in multidimensional physics. The idea of the holographic universe is appealing to me because everything in the universe is based on vibration. Everything vibrates and can vibrate at higher and higher frequencies. I think this ties into quantum superposition, however having said that I don’t really know more than than the average layperson. I do think the answers lay on a more metaphysical level that will only be able to be achieved by spiritual transformation.

      • A common misunderstanding between scientists and the general public is over the use of the word “theory”.

        I’ll start with Wikipedia’s definition of “scientific theory”: A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.

        Common usage of the word tends to define a “theory” as equivalent to “wild guess”, but a “scientific theory” is the gold standard in science. Not only does a scientific theory explain a set of data, it allows one to predict what one will find in future obervations.

        For example, were I to jump off my porch this morning, I would expect to return to earth instead of flying off into space. How do I know this? Not only did I fall back to earth every other time I did so, everyone else has reported the same thing occurring to them. So I could state my own hypothesis (now, there’s your wild guess… though it still remains tied to data) that says “If I am standing on my porch and jump up unaided by high winds or a propeller cap, I will return back to earth.” Then I test that hypothesis enough times to satisfy the statisticians, let’s say 100 times. So, after 100 jumps, and 100 times returning back to earth, I’d feel pretty damned confident that my hypothesis is true. Great! Next, I want to expand my idea, and see if it makes a difference between my standing on my porch, or standing on a table. I revise my hypothesis and retest. 100 jumps, 100 times returning to earth. OK. But what if it’s the fact that both my porch and the table were made of wood that made this true? So I switch to a metal table. 100 jumps, 100 times returning. With enough of these kinds of hypotheses and tests, I can try to form a generalized theory that sums up my tests and observations: “No matter where I am on earth, if I jump up at any angle from any surface, I will come back down again.”

        So there’s my scientific theory. It’s important to note that it is still falsifiable, that is, if at any point I do fly off into space from a simple jump, the theory is wrong, and needs to be revised in such a way that it still supports the existing set of facts.

        I say that it is an explanation of known facts that allow me to predict that, if I jumped off a high, steep cliff overlooking a Sarlacc, I should not expect to come home tomorrow. According to you, I ought not worry, because I’m relying on something that’s “just a theory” to make that assessment. So, I say “by all means, after you!”

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