Theoretical physicists studying the behavior of ultra-cold atoms have discovered a new source of friction, dispensing with a century-old paradox in the process. Their prediction, which experimenters may soon try to verify, was reported recently in Physical Review Letters.
The friction afflicts certain arrangements of atoms in a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC), a quantum state of matter in which the atoms behave in lockstep. In this state, well-tuned magnetic fields can cause the atoms to attract one another and even bunch together, forming a single composite particle known as a soliton.
Solitons appear in many areas of physics and are exceptionally stable. They can travel freely, without losing energy or dispersing, allowing theorists to treat them like everyday, non-quantum objects. Solitons composed of photons—rather than atoms—are even used for communication over optical fibers.
Studying the theoretical properties of solitons can be a fruitful avenue of research, notes Dmitry Efimkin, the lead author of the paper and a former JQI postdoctoral researcher now at the University of Texas at Austin. “Friction is very fundamental, and quantum mechanics is now quite a well-tested theory,” Efimkin says. “This work investigates the problem of quantum friction for solitons and marries these two fundamental areas of research.”
Efimkin, along with JQI Fellow Victor Galitski and Johannes Hofmann, a physicist at the University of Cambridge, sought to answer a basic question about soliton BECs: Does an idealized model of a soliton have any intrinsic friction?
Prior studies seemed to say no. Friction arising from billiard-ball-like collisions between a soliton and stray quantum particles was a possibility, but the mathematics prohibited it. For a long time, then, theorists believed that the soliton moved through its cloudy quantum surroundings essentially untouched.