Washington State Magazine

Summer 2009 cover

Summer 2009

In This Issue...


Living Large: In search of the elusive large animal veterinarian :: Nearly 500 counties in the United States have large herds of cattle, but no veterinarians to care for them. Although veterinary student Sam Nielson claims that it's the life of the large animal veterinarian that he's after, not money, fewer and fewer feel that way, moving to other types of practices that offer both better working conditions and compensation. by Hannelore Sudermann

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Gallery: Photos of large, medium and small animals By Chris Anderson and Ingrid Barrentine }

A Seat at the Table :: When Patty Murray '72, after a year as a state legislator, set her sights on the U.S. Senate, she got little encouragement. "You haven't paid your dues," they said. "You don't have enough money. You don't know the right people." None of that made any difference to Murray. by Hannelore Sudermann

Straight Shot to a Breakthrough? Don't count on it :: There are two sides to everything, says entomologist William Snyder of his biocontrol research. Along the way to developing a "practical" approach for crop defense, he answered a fundamental evolutionary question: Why are there so many species? by Cherie Winner

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Story: Pasteur's Quadrant }




:: SPORTS: Rowing 101

:: SHORT SUBJECT: Home economics revisited


Cover photo: Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, Senator Patty Murray, and Senator Edward Kennedy speaking to reporters at the Capitol by Michel du Cille/The Washington Post.

Depiction of individual atoms isolated by an optical lattice. <em>Courtesy Philip R. Johnson/American University.</em>

Depiction of individual atoms isolated by an optical lattice. Courtesy Philip R. Johnson/American University.

Blume's papers on fermions are referred to by so many other researchers that although she has been at WSU for only eight years, she is already among the University's most-cited scientists.


Blume's papers on fermions are referred to by so many other researchers that although she has been at WSU for only eight years, she is already among the University's most-cited scientists. Robert Hubner

Doerte Blume.


Doerte Blume.

Picture this

by | © Washington State University

Doerte Blume is good at explaining difficult concepts. She draws as she talks, putting into pictures what she knows about the tiniest fragments of matter. Her desk is swimming in paper, with notes and graphs and sketches of atoms lapping at the sides of her computer and spilling against a jetty of books. As a theoretical physicist, she relies heavily on high-powered math; but for her, before the math come the images.

Working solely from equations “doesn’t get me very far,” she says. “I also have to have the physical picture of, what would I expect? What do the particles do? I always try to think about, what physical mechanism is it that helps to formulate the equation I want to use?”

Blume is trying to understand the behavior of fermions (FUR-me-ons) and bosons (BO-zons), which is to say, the behavior of almost everything. Every particle in existence, from quarks and electrons up through atoms, is either a fermion or a boson. What makes a particle one or the other is a property called “spin,” which needn’t concern us here. What sends Blume’s imagination into high gear is what fermionic and bosonic atoms do when they get really, really cold.

Bosons lose energy as the temperature drops. If they get cold enough, they condense into a blob of matter called Bose-Einstein Condensate, or BEC, in which they all crowd into the lowest possible energy state. “That’s very, very characteristic of bosons,” says Blume. “They all want to do the same thing. It’s like bosons are social; they want to be together. Imagine a party, and you are in a conversation with a bunch of other people. The bosons, they would be that cluster.”

Fermions, on the other hand, want nothing to do with each other. “No fermion can be where another fermion is,” says Blume. “If one fermion occupies one energy state, the other fermion has to go to a different energy state.”

Even at temperatures near absolute zero (-273 degrees F.), fermions won’t bunch up in the lowest energy state. Instead of condensing like bosons, they form what’s called a degenerate Fermi gas. Since its fermions remain at fairly high energy levels, a Fermi gas has some unusual properties. Most notably, it may act like a superconductor.

Superconductivity is the transmission of electricity with no resistance. It’s like skiing downhill on ice. The current just goes. Superconducting crystals can be made in the lab, but so far the highest temperature at which they work is around -134 degrees F. Figuring out how to make superconductors that work at room temperature is one of the holy grails of modern physics and materials science.

The problem is, we don’t yet have a solid theoretical understanding of superconductivity, and without that, efforts to create superconductors tend to include a lot of trial and error.

“The theory of superconductivity is so hard,” says Blume. “Even if we can write down an equation, we might not be able to solve it, even with all the computer power there is.”

That’s where the ultra-cold fermion atoms come in. Experimental physicists have found that they can make a Fermi gas look and act like a crystal by using a grid of laser beams—an optical lattice—to slice and dice the gas so each atom ends up in its own little space.

“If you cut it open, it’s like an egg carton,” says Blume of an optical lattice. “You can put one atom per site in this egg carton. This is essentially a model for a typical crystal.”

In a crystal, electrons flow through the spaces between atomic nuclei that are rigidly bound to each other. In an optical lattice, whole fermionic atoms flow around the barriers created by the light beams. It’s a great model experimentally, because atoms are much easier to work with than electrons. It’s also a great model theoretically, because the equations describing their behavior can actually be solved.

Once Blume devises equations that describe a particular lattice, she uses them to do a theoretical experiment. What happens if she changes how strongly the particles interact with each other, or how much they attract or repel each other, or the size of the space they’re confined in? Sometimes an experimentalist asks her to try a variation on paper before tackling it in the lab. Other times, she suggests the experimentalist do for real what she did in theory.

“We can go ahead and do an experiment; go ahead and do a theory; and we can compare them pretty much without fudging,” she says. “If the results agree, it suggests we understand the physics. And if the results don’t agree, then we don’t understand the physics entirely... It would make me think and go back: Did I include all the right things? But I would also ask the experimentalist, ‘Are you sure your [set-up] was like this and not like that?’”

At WSU she shares ideas with fellow theorist Chuanwei Zhang and experimentalist Peter Engels, who was the first person in the Pacific Northwest to make an atomic BEC (see The Science Shop). Engels recently began working with Fermi gases and will soon launch a new series of experiments: He’s going to put fermions and bosons into an ultra-cold chamber at the same time.

Blume is sharpening her pencils in anticipation.

“Bosons are really interesting, fermions are really interesting—now what’s going to happen if you mix them?” says Blume. “The fermions don’t want to be on top of each other, but the bosons want to occupy the same space. But now the bosons can interact with the fermions, so does that make the fermions want to come closer?”

For Blume and her cold-matter colleagues, the party is just getting started.

Categories: Physics | Tags: Superconductivity, Subatomic particles

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