Magazine article Science News

Hydrogen Atoms Chill to Quantum Sameness

Magazine article Science News

Hydrogen Atoms Chill to Quantum Sameness

Article excerpt

Atoms of the simplest element, hydrogen, have finally yielded to efforts to supercool them into a single quantum-mechanical state. Coaxing hydrogen into a Bose-Einstein condensate--in which millions of ultracold atoms behave as one mega-atom--is a landmark, physicists say, because hydrogen is the lightest, most abundant, and best understood element.

The achievement caps a 20-year effort by physicists Thomas J. Greytak and Daniel Kleppner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who persevered after other hydrogen-research groups gave up. In 1995, a team using the alkali metal rubidium raced past them to make the first sample of the remarkable form of matter (SN: 7/15/95, p. 36), predicted in 1924 by Albert Einstein and Satyendra Nath Bose. Since then, 10 other groups have also made alkali condensates, including sodium and lithium versions (SN: 5/25/96, p. 327).

Word of hydrogen's condensation leaked out of the MIT group soon after Dale G. Fried, Thomas C. Killian, and others working under Greytak and Kleppner spotted a telltale boost in the density of their pooled atoms in June. Kleppner formally described the results early this month at the Summer Course of the Enrico Fermi International School of Physics in Varenna, Italy.

The condensate is made up of an estimated 100 million atoms--the most so far in any Bose-Einstein condensate. Because the coordinated quantum states of condensates allow them to double as atomic lasers (SN: 2/1/97, p. 71), the large population of the hydrogen version could mean brighter, longer-lasting pulses. …

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