A new form of matter makes its frosty debut


There is, indeed, something new under the sun. By chilling a cloud of atoms down to the coldest temperatures ever achieved, physicists have created a form of matter that never before existed in nature.

At a temperature just a small fraction of a degree above absolute zero, the atoms lost their individual identities, condensing to form a coherent, wave-like structure that acts like a single huge atom.

This coherence gives the new form of matter "completely different properties" from other materials, said one of its discoverers, Carl Weiman of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Atoms in other, warmer materials move constantly and rapidly, in random directions.

"The term 'Holy Grail' seems quite appropriate, given the singular importance of this discovery," said physicist Keith Burnett at Oxford University in England. Physicists have been trying to create this new matter since Albert Einstein and Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose predicted it was possible some 70 years ago.

Potential uses for the material -- known as a Bose-Einstein condensation -- could include powerful new laserlike devices using beams of atoms to deliver pulses of energy, to send signals, to drive chemical reactions and, perhaps, to etch patterns into materials. Additionally, scientists suspect the new material may be either superconducting, meaning electricity flows though it without resistance, or superfluid, meaning it might flow, like eddies in a stream, without any signs of friction. It exists only at temperatures very near absolute zero, defined as the theoretical temperature -- minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit -- at which atom movement would stop altogether.

The result was announced yesterday by researchers at the National Institute of Science and Technology and the University of Colorado, including Mr. Weiman, Michael Anderson, Jason Ensher, Michael Matthews and Eric Cornell.

As noted by Mr. Cornell, the new form of matter "could never have existed naturally anywhere in the universe. So the sample in our lab is the only chunk of this stuff in the universe -- unless it's in a lab in some other solar system."

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