Science 3 min read

Lab-created BEC Hums Tune Similar to the Early Universe

Imagine how many kinds of sounds live out there in distant atmospheres. | NASA Images |

Imagine how many kinds of sounds live out there in distant atmospheres. | NASA Images |

Physicists discovered they can mimic the rapid expansion of the universe in the lab using a Bose-Einstein condensate. This method could serve as a testing platform for physics of the cosmos.

Depending on temperature and pressure, matter can come in different states, each with its own properties and conditions of existence.

We know of liquids, gases and solids. These are the three fundamental states of matter that we’re most familiar with.

Also considered as a state of matter is plasma, which is an ionized gas (charged particles) that forms when the energy levels are very high, resulting in some electrons getting free from atoms.

Then, there’s the Bose-Einstein Condensate.

The Bose-Einstein Condensate, the 5th State of Matter

In the 1920s, Indian theoretical physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, who later gave his name to Bosons, made great contributions to the burgeoning quantum theory of physics.

Building on the groundwork laid by Bose, Albert Einstein extrapolated the behavioral research of matter at very low energy levels.

In 1924, Einstein predicted that under extremely low temperatures, the laws of quantum physics allow for large numbers of particles to condense and thus operates as a single quantum system.

This new quantum state took the name of Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) and remained a theoretical concept for over 70 years.

It’s only in 1995 that the Bose-Einstein condensation phenomenon was first observed in the lab. Back then, researchers at JILA (ex Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics) created a gaseous condensate.

Often described as the fifth state of matter, BEC has since been the subject of research aiming to reveal its exotic properties and discover ways to exploit them.

Because BECs tend to retain their form longer in space than on Earth, NASA has launched the Cold Atom Lab to study ultra-cold gaseous condensates in the ISS.

Cloud of “Humming” BEC Mimics the Universe Expansion

The Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) is joint research collaboration in quantum physics between the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Laboratory for Physical Sciences.

As part of the projects taking place at JQI, NIST’s atomic physicist Stephen Eckel and his research team were experimenting with ultracold atoms when they noticed the striking resemblance between BEC expansion and the expansion of the Universe.

The researchers ran many experiments, rapidly increasing the size of a ring-shaped cloud of ultracold atoms and taking successive snapshots of the process.

This rapid growth was so fast that the atoms started audibly “humming”. This same phenomenon appears in models of the exponential expansion of the early universe, also known as the cosmic inflation period.

Researchers think their BEC method would help physicists study the formation of the primitive Universe and test other cosmological theories.

“From the atomic physics perspective, the experiment is beautifully described by existing theory. But even more striking is how that theory connects with cosmology,” said Eckel, the study’s lead author. “Maybe this will one day inform future models of cosmology. Or vice versa. Maybe there will be a model of cosmology that’s difficult to solve but that you could simulate using a cold atomic gas.”

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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