How Ultracold Atomic Physics is Creating Fundamentally New Materials

Physics has a long track record of discovering and studying new forms of matter. Apart from the four states of matter traditionally taught in Physics class – solid, liquid, gas and plasma – there is a whole range of other, more exotic states which occur only under very particular circumstances such as ultracold temperatures or extreme density. Some of these have been observed in the Lab while others remain theoretical. The Bose-Einstein Condensate – a gas of bosons cooled down to extremely low temperatures – was in the latter category until it was created in the laboratory in 1995. Wolfgang Ketterle, a German-born physicist at MIT, and two other researchers received the Nobel Prize in 2001 for this accoplishment. Underlying his discovery is the larger insight that when atoms are cooled down to temperatures close to absolute zero (0 K on the Kelvin scale, -273,15° on the Celsius scale) they stop their individual energetic movement and start moving “in lockstep” as one wave. Wolfgang Ketterle, still a professor at MIT, continues to experiment with ultracold atoms and doing this, gets close to the limits of known physics. In an ultracold environment, and using laser beams, his group gains control of individual atoms and uses them as building blocks to study new forms of matter with unknown properties. At Falling Walls, he describes the similarities between atoms and Lego blocks, and why experimental physics requires curiosity and creativity for pushing forward into unknown territory.

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