World's First Mega-Giant Atom Creates Revolutionary New State of Matter
Atomic science is mindblowing. What else has the power to transform Earth both metaphorically and literally and can change history with one small revelation?
Sometimes, when you pull an atom apart, things go boom. At other times, when you shove a bunch of atoms together, you manage to create a teeny tiny version of Voltron.
Scientists from the Vienna University of Technology and Harvard University have been playing around with the empty space within atoms, in the academic equivalent of trying to figure out how many ping pong balls a person can fit inside their mouth.
Atoms have a lot of vacant, empty space, right? So what if we took a big atom with a lot of wiggle room, and jammed it full of smaller atoms?
Of course, to make this weird experiment work, scientists needed to pick the right kind of atom to play host to tinier particles. There already exists what is known as a Rydberg atom, which has an electron that orbits its nucleus at a particularly wide distance of several hundred nanometers; enough space to fit thousands of small, compact hydrogen atoms.
Creating a Rydberg atom isn't easy—the scientists had to use a laser to agitate a regular atom until its electron could be moved into a wide orbit. This also meant supercooling the atom to just above Absolute Zero so as to slow everything down to the point that scientists could poke their chosen atom with a stick while being able to keep track of it.
I thought I'd share this because it's a photo. Of. An. Atom. (!!) It's emitting light it absorbed from a laser that's illuminating it. Those two electrodes on either side, by the way, are only two millimeters apart. https://t.co/hJGzXA5s7w pic.twitter.com/YiDojkUspu— Sophia Nasr (@Astropartigirl) February 25, 2018
Once this had been achieved, it was simply a matter of stuffing the Rydberg atom to bursting with strontium atoms, which don't take up much space. The specifics of this are fiddly, but the scientists managed to cram over 170 strontium atoms within their Rydberg atom, causing the Rydberg's electron to orbit around all of the strontium atoms as well, effectively encasing them within itself.
This was in part possible because strontium atoms don't carry an electrical charge—if they were either positively or negatively charged, they would have caused the electron to behave erratically and the delicate balancing act would have been impossible to achieve.
"It is a highly unusual situation," said Shuhei Yoshida, a scientist involved in the experiment. "Normally, we are dealing with charged nuclei, binding electrons around them. Here, we have an electron, binding neutral atoms."
There's now a lot more experimentation that can be done with these densely packed atoms, which essentially count as a new form of matter, and which will behave in unusual ways depending on the environment they're exposed to.
The only downside is that, in order to maintain the cohesive structure of the weird Voltron atom, it needs to be kept constantly at near Absolute Zero. If the external electron warms up to the point that it starts spinning faster, the whole shape will deteriorate.
It'll be interesting to see where this new creation goes in the near future. Not much is known about how atomic Volton acts, but now that this exists, the scientists involved have a lot of work to do in discovering the intricacies of this weird and unpredictable form of artificial matter.