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Exploradio Origins: A Super-Cooled Glimpse into the Quantum World

Liquid helium.
Liquid helium.

When we cool things down, classically, we can think of the atoms moving around inside the material getting slower and slower until they stop moving. That should make really cold things really boring, right? 

“Supercool liquid helium crawls out of containers," Nandini Trivedi said. "And certain supercool metals lose all their resistance. So as substances get cold they start behaving in really unusual ways.” 

Trivedi is professor of physics at Ohio State University. Her specialty is the theory of quantum matter: figuring out how these weird effects, like superfluidic liquid helium flowing up out of its container, or superconductors losing their electrical resistance, are actually the result of quantum mechanical properties like the fuzziness about knowing where a particle is vs. how fast it’s moving.

“Each atom has a little wave associated with it. As you cool these atoms or molecules, their fuzziness starts increasing; the uncertainty in their position starts increasing. Even if these atoms are a certain distance apart, below a certain temperature, their waves start overlapping. And quantum physics starts playing a role once these waves start overlapping,” Trivedi said.

Normally, the quantum mechanical world is invisible to us, but in superconductors and superfluids, we see it poking through.

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Kellen McGee is currently pursuing a PhD in nuclear and accelerator physics at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2014. She’s held a number of research positions, ultimately becoming a research assistant in a biophysics and structural biology lab at Case Western Reserve University. There, the Institute for the Science of Origins instantly became her intellectual home. Central to the ISO’s mission is science communication.