“Getting to the Starting Line”: Achieving the Bose-Einstein Condensate

For five years Professor Seth Aubin and graduate students Megan Ivory and Austin Ziltz have been working towards achieving the Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC), a unique state of matter of gas achieved at ultra-cold temperatures.

Rather than producing experimental results as most other experimental labs on campus do, the Ultra-Cold lab has been undergoing a feat of engineering just to “get to the starting line”. At least 75% of the rather impressive experimental set-up was built by hand or modified by the lab group to attain the extremely cold temperatures needed just to begin to be in the range of the critical temperature (Tc) for the Bose-Einstein Condensate. Joining the Ultra-Cold Atomic, Molecular and Optics (AMO) lab didn’t just provide experience in that field according to Megan; working towards the BEC has provided experience with electronics, vacuum and laser science (yes, laser science- as lasers are actually incredibly ordered, they are also incredibly cold and can be used to cool matter). What’s more, this is all before the intended experiments could even begin.

Knowing that most of the equipment you rely on was created by your own hands can add a bit of pressure to the situation. “How many things that we built have to go right and not break themselves?” wondered Austin, thinking on all the electronics projects he worked on for the BEC set-up. If something goes wrong, there is no manufacturer to get a replacement from or lodge a complaint with, after all. “There was lots of finger crossing.”

When it all goes right, though, it’s an indescribably thing, and that is exactly what the lab got to experience upon attaining the BEC. At first it felt a bit bittersweet, Austin explains, because the first glimpse of the BEC occurred late at night when only Professor Aubin was present. The pictures were blurry, however, so all three were present for the first proper pictures taken of the BEC. When asked how he felt upon attaining the BEC, Austin’s first response was a very honest, “tired.” However, once people started coming into the lab to see it, it became increasingly exciting

What makes the BEC so significant? Well, for one (very cool) thing, it is quantum mechanics you can literally observe. “Learning it all is abstract,” Megan states, “but for the BEC you can literally see it on screen.”

But that’s getting just a bit ahead of ourselves.

The Bose-Einstein Condensate occurs at extremely low temperatures close to 0 Kelvin; Aubin’s lab attains temperatures between 10 to 100 nanoKelvin (that’s 1×10-7 Kelvin). At such low temperatures the atoms in the gas statistically prefer to be in the ground state, or the unexcited state with no energy added. The trademark of the BEC is the cigar-like shape it makes when atoms cooled to the critical temperature are kept in a bowl-shaped trap. The atoms are bounded on three sides, but they are tightly bound on only two in the horizontal direction; as a result, when the trap is turned off and the atom cluster begins to fall due to gravity, it rapidly expands in two directions (the tightly-bounded two), but not in the loosely bounded one. This is due to the basic quantum mechanical equation . This shift from cigar-shaped cluster to elongated ‘blob’, for lack of a better word, is the key signature, and can be seen in the gif below.

The above image links to a video of the BEC trapped on an atom chip provided to the College by the Thywissen Group at the University of Toronto.

The Bose-Einstein Condensate is an interesting type of matter due to the fact that all the atoms are identical as they have all gone to the ground state; it’s idea for controlled conditions. Now that it is attained Aubin’s lab will proceed with experiments that utilize its unique nature. The study of the BEC can lead to innovations in other areas, too, including quantum computing and atomic clocks. For now, the lab is working on increasing the quantity of atoms kept in the trap when the BEC is excited and on getting BEC using potassium atoms as well as the already-successful rubidium atoms.

Attaining the BEC is just the beginning for Aubin’s lab. As he said, all the work up to this point has been getting to the starting line. As far as starting lines go, though, it really is quite an impressive one.

For additional information about Aubin’s lab and research, you can visit his site here. For further reading about attaining the BEC at William and Mary,read Joseph McClain’s article on the physics department page here.

Tuesday’s Quick Blurbs

Bose-Einstein Condensate Achieved!

For five years Professor Seth Aubin and two graduate students, Austin and Megan, have been working towards a set-up capable of attaining the Bose-Einstein Condesate. As of September 2012, this five-year processes has finally “brought them to the starting line”. So, what is Bose-Einstein Condensation, why did it take so long to attain, and where will the lab go from here? Find out later today as this is this week’s featured blog post!

The CoS Garden and Organic Food

Lately there’s been some debate over what, precisely, the impact of organic food is on the environment as well as the health of those who consume it. As W&M’s Committee on Sustainability funded an eco garden over the summer (and throughout the school year), what do they think of these recent doubts regarding organic food?

Speaking of organic food…

Of Research and the Public Opinion: Who Has the Last Say?

In light of the Standford study regarding organic food, which did not find any evidence that organic food was significantly better in terms of nutrition or growing risk, multiple petitions have been started by civilians calling for the retraction of the study, claiming it is ‘fatally flawed’  and citing one of the author’s links to tobacco companies as a reason why it shouldn’t be trusted. Are these types of petitions harmful considering they lack any scientific basis and are, in essence, attacking a scientific study because they don’t agree with what it has to say, or do they provide a valuable fact-checking source that seeks to address researcher bias and ensure important things are not overlooked?

Scientific Literacy in America: Not as Bad as the Media Wants You to Think

It’s a commonly heard thing nowadays: America is falling behind foreign nations in terms of math and science education, and the average American knows and cares less about science than they do, too. Is there truth in this, or is it an exaggeration taken and run with by the media? How do Americans express interest and knowledge in the sciences compared to other countries?


Newton’s Apple Tree and Einstein’s Begonias

According to the story that so many were taught in elementary school, in 1666 at Woolsthorpe Manor an apple fell from a tree right onto the head of Sir Isaac Newton. Rather than giving the physicist the gift of a concussion as one might expect, the story goes that it created a ‘eureka!’ moment and inspired the famous universal law of gravity. Now, while it’s highly unlikely that Newton was actually hit upside the head by an inspirational apple, it is actually true that a specific apple tree did provide the impetus for the idea.

The proof comes from an anecdote included in “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s life” by William Stukeley, written in 1752. The story Stukeley records was heard firsthand from the man himself. Already in a contemplative mood (as Newton constantly was, I’d imagine), he observed an apple fall from a tree and mused, “Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground?” From there, the idea grew into gravity as a universal force. After all, to get remarkable insight out of a scientist, all you really need to do is ask them a question they don’t know the answer to; the desire to understand will take over from there.

Scan of the page from “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s life” that details the momentous apple’s descent

Whether rightly or wrongly, Newton’s apple tree has definitely cemented its place in the folklore and history of science. For some non-scientists it’s even true to say that the apple tree is the first thing they think of when they hear his name, with things such as gravitation and inertia coming in as an afterthought! For that reason, many geeky-minded people find it pretty cool to be in the famous tree’s presence, despite it just being any old Flower of Kent apple tree. A piece of the tree was even taken up in the Space Shuttle Atlantis, defying the gravitational force it helped to make famous, just for the sake of it being Newton’s tree.

The good news is you don’t need to go to England to stand in its presence, so long as you’re okay with having a descendent of the famous tree rather than the original.  Graftings from Newton’s apple tree have been planted the world over, typically at college campuses as gifts from Mathematics or Physics departments or outside of physics labs to remind the scientists within that sometimes inspiration comes when you least expect it. From the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to MIT to the University of Tokyo, having an apple tree descended from Newton is a rather nice feather in a campus’ cap. If you’re only interested in the original, you’re out of luck: the tree that Newton observed was long ago used for furniture, but not before graftings from it were taken for future trees, including one planted right where the original stood.

A descendant of Newton’s apple tree at the University of Tokyo

So where’s William and Mary’s apple tree? Not here yet, but it’s on its way. A cutting will be gifted to the College from MIT and planted near Small Hall, as is only appropriate. Fun fact: the reason this request was accepted was due to the fact that the founder and first president of MIT, William Barton Rogers, was a W&M graduate! His father even taught mathematics and natural philosophy at the College.

W&M alumni are everywhere, doing impressive things to shape American history… particularly going off and founding other universities, it’d seem!

While Newton’s apple tree is far more iconic, it isn’t the only plant touched by a famous physicist still in circulation to this day. Begonias didn’t help inspire Albert Einstein, or at least there isn’t any documented proof of it, but he did cultivate them while living in Princeton, New Jersey. Cuttings from the begonias raised by Einstein had been given as gifts before, mainly to physics or mathematics faculty at Princeton University or at the Institute for Advanced Study, but now they are also being circulated among a group residing in Princeton outside of the faculty. One such pair of recipients would be my grandparents, recent Friends of the Institute for Advanced Studies and longtime residences of Princeton, New Jersey.

A descendant of Einstein’s begonias as photographed and cared for by my grandparents, Richard and Vicky Bergman

Now, in light of all this, I wouldn’t say having at least one significant connection to a plant or tree of some sort is a requirement to be a brilliant physicist… but it is pretty cool to be able to stand under the shade of an apple tree or admire the leaves of a begonia and know that it was touched by a physicist whose work forms cornerstones of how we see and study the world. They serve as physical reminders that, no matter how fantastical or legendary they may seem to us now, the prominent figures of science took time out for seemingly insignificant observations and self-satisfying pursuits just the same as us.

So, next time you’re in a contemplative mood or just feel like unwinding with some gardening, why not seek out a nice tree to rest under or some begonias to replant? Who knows what ideas might steal into your head!

Two Ideas, One Future Post

While every Tuesday from here on out will have a full blog post, every Monday I’ll post up two different post ideas. One will go on to be the full blog post the following Tuesday, full of glory, images, and maybe even interviews; the other will remain just as a sidenote, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting!

Newton’s Apples and Einstein’s Begonias

Both famous physics have connections to distinct flora, but for rather different reasons and at different degrees of historical accuracy (in short, one is more of a cute over-inflated coincidence while the other is positively factual). The flora in question, however- specifically an apple tree and a particular strain of begonias -continue to this day and are gradually making their way around the globe… or at least around a community. So, where can one go to sit under a tree descended from Newton’s  apple tree of legend, or what does a begonia descended from the ones cultivated by Einstein look like? Come back in a week to find out!

What is that thing in the lobby of Small Hall?

The College of William and Mary’s physics building, Small Hall (after which this blog takes its title!) has a large, rather impressive looking piece of historical scientific equipment on display in its lobby. The question is, however, what exactly is that weird looking thing and what did it once do? The answer is an electrostatic charge generator, and it’s long held a special place in the history of the department.