Feeling the chill

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Science  09 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6257, pp. 153-155
DOI: 10.1126/science.350.6257.153

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For more than a century, studies of liquid helium, the only substance that won't freeze at absolute zero temperature, have proved a gold mine for physicists. Liquid helium bagged five Nobel Prizes—one more than superconductivity, the other star of condensed matter physics. It displays bizarre quantum mechanical properties such as "superfluidity"—the strange ability to flow without resistance—and has been the nexus between fundamental theory and condensed matter physics. Now, however, the field is ailing. Especially in the United States, the field is contracting, as older physicists retire and few younger ones enter the field. Even submissions to the field's main journal are falling. Liquid helium's advocates think it still has much to offer, and researchers recently convened a special workshop at the State University of New York at Buffalo to map out the field's grand challenges. But with much already known, breakthroughs are hard to come by. And, some physicists say, the field has become insular, defined by narrow questions and exotic, challenging experimental techniques. The survival of a storied field may depend in making liquid helium relevant to the rest of physics again.