The surprising experimental results agree with independent numerical simulations produced by collaborating scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia. The UA and Australian researchers are reporting the results of the research in Oct. 16 issue of the journal Nature.
The results are of great interest because they reveal something fundamentally new about certain kinds of "phase transitions," and nature is replete with phase transitions.
Common phase transitions include liquid water freezing to ice, or liquid water boiling to steam. Another common phase transition occurs in proteins when raw eggs are cooked. More exotic examples of phase transitions include the cooling of materials until they become superconductors, and, on the scale of the universe, the phase transition that transformed the early universe from a hot, dense system born from the Big Bang into the universe with protons, electrons, structure and forces observed today.
By first creating such a cold gas in their UA campus laboratory, and then lowering the temperature of the system just a little bit more, some atoms in the gas still behave much as they do in classical physics, bouncing around at random. However, this additional cooling induces a phase transition where other atoms of the gas become a new form of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate, a tiny droplet of superfluid which behaves according to quantum physics.
Bose-Einstein condensates, or BECs, were first produced in Nobel Prize-winning experiments in 1995. Since then, theoretical and experimental researchers have studied BECs intensely, using BECs as valuable new tools for probing a wide range of fundamental physics. The UA experimental team, and the University of Queensland theoretical team headed by physicist Matthew Davis, paired up to push the limits of what is known about how BECs actually form.
"Scientists understand a lot more about BECs after over ten years of work, but there are still some great surprises," said Anderson.
Their work lends additional support to the idea that spontaneous "topological defect" formation in phase transitions is a widespread phenomenon, even at temperatures near absolute zero. "Defect" in this sense means that a discontinuity has appeared in the background superfluid of the BEC.
"In our experiments, we found that when we cool a very cold gas through the BEC phase transition, the BEC can spontaneously begin to rotate, creating something like a microscopic quantum mechanical hurricane where atoms rotate as a fluid around a vortex core where there is no fluid," Anderson said.
"The idea of spontaneous formation of vortices in BECs had been lightly discussed as theory before, but had not been observed in experiments," he added.
Ironically, showing that BECs could be spun up into a rotating state to form vortices was a hot research topic just a few years ago. Anderson was a postdoc on the team that was the first to create a vortex in a BEC. They used creative but relatively difficult techniques. Other groups have now used a variety of techniques to successfully create BECs with many vortices.
"What was so surprising about our work is that we saw these things just appear by themselves. You just make your condensate, and they sometimes appear. You don't have to somehow manipulate your system, all you have to do is cool through the phase transition."
" I think what we've done, for the first time, is link experimental observations of defect formation in a phase transition with a theoretical model and numerical simulations that are built on some pretty rigid foundations of quantum mechanics and quantum interactions," Anderson said.
"By collaborating with our colleagues in Australia, who are doing the theoretical research, we can back out details of the physical process that causes these vortices to spontaneously form. It will help us understand more about how superfluids develop, and perhaps more about universal phase transition dynamics in general, including the kind of phase transition that occurred in the early universe."
The experimental research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Army Research Office. The theoretical work was supported by the Australian Research Council and the University of Queensland.
The UA and University of Queensland science results agree with an important theoretical model called the "Kibble-Zurek mechanism" that concerns how defects can form in a phase transition. The model says that the faster a system undergoes a phase transition, the more defects -- in this case, the vortices -- naturally and spontaneously form. Conversely, the slower the system is cooled, the smoother the phase transition into a new state will be and the fewer defects will appear.
In the not-so-near future, Anderson said, BECs may become useful in devices in ways similar to laser light. Rotation sensors, accelerometers or interferometers based on the coherence properties of Bose-Einstein condensates are among the envisioned possible applications, he said.
But for now, perhaps most exciting use for BECs is as a tool for exploring the fundamental ideas of physics in ways that couldn't be explored before.SCIENCE CONTACT:
Massive impact crater from a kilometer-wide iron meteorite discovered in Greenland
15.11.2018 | Faculty of Science - University of Copenhagen
The unintended consequences of dams and reservoirs
14.11.2018 | Uppsala University
Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have captured a difficult-to-view singular event involving "magnetic reconnection"--the process by which sparse particles and energy around Earth collide producing a quick but mighty explosion--in the Earth's magnetotail, the magnetic environment that trails behind the planet.
Magnetic reconnection has remained a bit of a mystery to scientists. They know it exists and have documented the effects that the energy explosions can...
Biochips have been developed at TU Wien (Vienna), on which tissue can be produced and examined. This allows supplying the tissue with different substances in a very controlled way.
Cultivating human cells in the Petri dish is not a big challenge today. Producing artificial tissue, however, permeated by fine blood vessels, is a much more...
Faster and secure data communication: This is the goal of a new joint project involving physicists from the University of Würzburg. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research funds the project with 14.8 million euro.
In our digital world data security and secure communication are becoming more and more important. Quantum communication is a promising approach to achieve...
On Saturday, 10 November 2018, the research icebreaker Polarstern will leave its homeport of Bremerhaven, bound for Cape Town, South Africa.
When choosing materials to make something, trade-offs need to be made between a host of properties, such as thickness, stiffness and weight. Depending on the application in question, finding just the right balance is the difference between success and failure
Now, a team of Penn Engineers has demonstrated a new material they call "nanocardboard," an ultrathin equivalent of corrugated paper cardboard. A square...
09.11.2018 | Event News
06.11.2018 | Event News
23.10.2018 | Event News
16.11.2018 | Health and Medicine
16.11.2018 | Life Sciences
16.11.2018 | Life Sciences