THERE’S no doubt in my mind about the, erm, hottest story in science this week – although I have already given up hope of ever properly understanding it. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, reported that they had cooled gas atoms to a temperature below absolute zero.
In case you’re checking, the time is currently January. Not even close to April.
Sub-zero Kelvin temperatures are of course the stuff of science fiction, of negative energies and dark matter and antigravity and perpetual motion. Yet it turns out, if this research is to be believed, to be even weirder than that.
In the Max Planck labs, the scientists cooled about 100,000 atoms to just a few billionths of a Kelvin, then trapped them in an optical lattice of lasers. A high vacuum insulates them from incoming heat energy, and the lattice controls kinetic energy below an upper limit. Because temperature relates to total energy, including interaction and potential energy, the physicists were able to take the atoms to the upper boundary of total energy and thus ‘realise’ a negative temperature – a few billionths below zero K.
In doing so they opened a Pandora’s box containing both Schroedinger’s cat and Alice’s looking-glass, along with a whole heap of absurd consequences.
These sub-zero gas atoms exert a negative pressure, and attract each other, yet they do not collapse in on themselves as dark energy would be expected to. This sort of behaviour means that combustion engines with thermodynamic efficiency over 100 percent are possible – which in turn means that all those perpetual motion machines that have amused us over the years are not necessarily as hopeless as we thought. As long as they can be fuelled by negative-K gas atoms.
This is only the start. Take a deep breath and sit down: according to researcher Ulrich Schneider, the gas his team took below absolute zero “is not colder than zero Kelvin. It is even hotter than at any positive temperature”. He clarified this conundrum by explaining that a sub-zero K temperature is in fact hotter than infinity degrees. It is, simultaneously, less than nothing and more than everything.
The researchers explain this paradox by acknowledging it “may sound strange that a negative absolute temperature is hotter than a positive one [but] this is simply a consequence of the historic definition of absolute temperature, however; if it were defined differently, this apparent contradiction would not exist”.
Those with more malleable brains than mine may find enlightenment from the original source material, here: http://www.mpg.de/6776082/negative_absolute_temperature
I’ll be interested to learn how the definition of ‘absolute’ can be changed to accommodate this new paradigm. Meanwhile in other news, black is really white, up is really down, and the Pope is actually an atheist. Don’t even get me started on those bears and their arboreal ablutions.
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