Dust off your science textbooks; it’s time to scrawl a new phase of matter in the margins. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created an entirely new form of matter: a supersolid. Up to this point, physicists thought supersolids might be possible, but had not yet observed them in the laboratory.
Liquid, solid, or gas are the three states that typically come to mind when talking about matter; water, ice, and steam is the old standby science experiment to demonstrate these states you probably performed in grade school. But now MIT researchers have been able to create a supersolid, which according to MIT blends the properties of solids and superfluids. They took a superfluid gas called a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) and manipulated it with lasers to create a quantum phase of matter possessing a rigid structure, much like a solid, but that can also flow smoothly like a superfluid.
Project leader Wolfgang Ketterle, a MIT physics professor known for winning the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics for co-discovering BECs, said in a statement, “It is counterintuitive to have a material which combines superfluidity and solidity. If your coffee was superfluid and you stirred it, it would continue to spin around forever.”
The journal Nature published the research online the beginning of March. The physicists aim to experiment more on supersolids, which right now only exist at very low temperatures under what MIT describes as ultrahigh-vacuum conditions. Ketterle said, “With our cold atoms, we are mapping out what is possible in nature. Now that we have experimentally proven that the theories predicting supersolids are correct, we hope to inspire further research, possibly with unanticipated results.”
In the very same issue of Nature, Swiss scientists reported an alternative way to obtain a supersolid using mirrors. Ketterle said, “The simultaneous realization by two groups shows how big the interest is in this new form of matter.”
Via MIT News