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Bose-Einstein Condensation in Microgravity

Science  18 Jun 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5985, pp. 1540-1543
DOI: 10.1126/science.1189164

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Going Down the Tube

Two pillars of modern physics are quantum mechanics and general relativity. So far, both have remained apart with no quantum mechanical description of gravity available. Van Zoest et al. (p. 1540; see the Perspective by Nussenzveig and Barata) present work with a macroscopic quantum mechanical system—a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) of rubidium atoms in which the cloud of atoms is cooled into a collective quantum state—in microgravity. By dropping the BEC down a 146-meter-long drop chamber and monitoring the expansion of the quantum gas under these microgravity conditions, the authors provide a proof-of-principle demonstration of a technique that can probe the boundary of quantum mechanics and general relativity and perhaps offer the opportunity to reconcile the two experimentally.

Abstract

Albert Einstein’s insight that it is impossible to distinguish a local experiment in a “freely falling elevator” from one in free space led to the development of the theory of general relativity. The wave nature of matter manifests itself in a striking way in Bose-Einstein condensates, where millions of atoms lose their identity and can be described by a single macroscopic wave function. We combine these two topics and report the preparation and observation of a Bose-Einstein condensate during free fall in a 146-meter-tall evacuated drop tower. During the expansion over 1 second, the atoms form a giant coherent matter wave that is delocalized on a millimeter scale, which represents a promising source for matter-wave interferometry to test the universality of free fall with quantum matter.

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