Scientists Got A Tiny Mechanical Drum Colder Than They Thought Possible
Try to remember the coldest thing you've ever felt. An ice-cream-induced brain freeze? Sub-zero temps during a Chicago winter? You couldn't come close to comparing that experience to the frigid temperatures allowed by physics. In January 2017, a team of scientists announced they have cooled a mechanical object to a temperature colder than thought possible.
A Really Cool Drum—Literally
Sorry, physics, we're not playing by your rules today. A team of scientists from National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado achieved the unachievable by cooling a mechanical drum "beyond the quantum backaction limit." Just how cold? We're talkin' 360 microKelvin—which is 10,000 times colder than the vacuum of space. They did it using squeezed light, which is not a new technique, but it had not yet been used for cooling (Gizmodo has a good explanation of how it works here.)
Besides just being really freaking cool (no pun intended), this finding has some practical applications. Because supercooled systems like this drum register virtually no random noise from the surrounding environment, they may give extra precision as force or acceleration sensors. "In the near term, it's about achieving the highest sensitivities that nature allows," John Teufel of NIST told New Scientist. "But further into the future, this sort of cooling may help us revolutionise quantum computing and probe the nature of the quantum world."
It Gets Colder
It's important to note that the mechanical drum the NIST cooled in this experiment is not the coldest thing ever—it's just the coldest mechanical object. As The Washington Post reports, using squeezed light to cool mechanical objects "opens the door to building instruments of unprecedented sensitivity, and to understanding quantum mechanics — one of physics's most mysterious branches — better than ever before."
As for the coldest thing ever? The Bose-Einstein condensate takes the cake. As described by LiveScience, this mysterious fifth state of matter is "a group of atoms cooled to within a hair of absolute zero."