The first sighting of atoms flying in formation has been reported by physicists at the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder) in the Aug. 13 issue of Physical Review Letters*. While the Air Force and geese prefer a classic "V," the strontium atoms--choreographed in this experiment with precision laser pulses and ultracold temperatures--were recorded flying in the shape of a cube.
These colorized images show strontium atoms forming a "cube" as the frequency of laser light used to manipulate them changes. (Left) Atoms become visible at the eight corners of a cube. (Middle) Atoms also appear at the midpoints of the lines forming each cube face and begin to appear at the center of each cube face. Right) Atoms appear at the corners, as well as at the midpoints and more clearly at the centers of each cube face.
This "really bizarre" behavior is believed to occur with all atoms under similar conditions, says physicist Jun Ye of NIST, who led the research at JILA, a joint institute of NIST and CU-Boulder. Ye is also a faculty member of the CU-Boulder physics department."
Atoms have not previously been seen flying in formation, says Ye. Strontium’s unique physical properties make the observations possible. In particular, the configuration of strontium’s electrons and the resulting atomic properties allow it to efficiently absorb laser energy in two very specific "resonant" wavelengths--a strong resonance at a wavelength of blue light and another, much weaker resonance for longer-wavelength red light. This makes strontium a promising candidate for a next-generation atomic clock based on optical rather than microwave frequencies, and is the reason the JILA team is studying the atom’s quantum behavior (see text box at right).
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