Baby, it’s Cold Inside

March 6th, 2014

Wolfgang Ketterle in the lab.

Wolfgang Ketterle in the lab. (Photo via his website)

For parts of North America, the winter of 2014 is shaping up to be one of the coldest on record. The mass of cold air known as the “polar vortex” has many people longing for more tropical temperatures. But there’s a group of researchers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who love the cold. In fact, they work in one of the coldest places in the universe: the MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms (CUA).

It was in the CUA lab that researchers produced some of the first Bose-Einstein condensates—a new form of matter cooled to temperatures near absolute zero (-459.67˚F or -273.15˚C). John D. MacArthur Professor of Physics Wolfgang Ketterle, Eric Cornell PhD ’90, and Carl Wieman ’73, shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics for this achievement.

In 2003, Ketterle achieved another milestone when his lab cooled a sodium gas to a half-a-billionth degree above absolute zero. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, they hold the record for the lowest manmade temperature.*

Ketterle and his colleagues aren’t chasing the ultracold just for fun. Their work has paved the way for new fields of research using ultracold atoms and quantum gases, and for breakthroughs such as improving precision instruments like the atomic clock. Martin Zwierlein, assistant professor in physics and a researcher at the CUA, believes their studies could one day revolutionize energy systems by replacing conventional transmission wires with high-temperature superconductors.

Watch: Wolfgang Ketterle explains Bose-Einstein condensates, the coldest matter in the universe.

Also: this brief documentary highlights the work of CUA.

*Finnish physicist Juha Tuoriniemi has manipulated the cores of rhodium atoms to a temperature of 180 trillionths of a degree Fahrenheit above absolute zero. Ketterle’s work used a group of atoms.

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