Dr. Eric Cornell is a Professor in the CU Department of Physics and a fellow at NIST and JILA. Professor Cornell won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2001 for his work on the Creation of the Bose-Einstein Condensate. Professor Cornell’s Cornell Group researches primarily atomic and molecular physics, precision measurement, the Bose-Einstein Condensate and extremely cold atomic gases.
Professor Cornell said he divides his time between CU and his work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The joint work between CU’s Physics Department and NIST is called JILA. The website describes JILA,
“JILA began as a joint institute of the University of Colorado Boulder and the NIST (then known as the National Bureau of Standards) in 1962. At that time, the study of laboratory astrophysics was a new concept. Now, over fifty years later, JILA studies a broad section of physics including Quantum Information Science & Technology, Atomic & Molecular Physics, Astrophysics, Laser Physics, Biophysics, Chemical Physics, Nanoscience and Precision Measurement.” (You can learn more about JILA at their website by clicking HERE
Professor Cornell started by describing how things were, 14 billion years ago- there was a “bang.” (You could call it a “big bang.”) Shortly after the big bang, things started to “form.”
Professor Cornell explained that everything is made up of electrons, protons and neutrons. Professor Cornell said, “stick them together and you get atoms, stick atoms together and you get molecules, put the molecules together and you get everything else in the universe.”
Professor Cornell said that in addition to the protons, electrons and neutrons, the universe also contained their “partners.” The partners of the building blocks of everything is called antimatter. For every electron, there was an antielectron, for every proton, an antiproton and for every neutron, an antineutron.
We don’t see much of antimatter these days, according to Professor Cornell, but 14 billion years ago, he said it was “copious.” At that time, there was about the same amount of antimatter as matter. That means that the universe was filled with billions of times the “stuff” that it is currently- it was really crowded.
Then Professor Cornell asked to remember our high school chemistry because the universe did something we still observe today, it started to expand and when it expanded, it cooled off.
And then, “something very romantic happened,” according to Professor Cornell. Every
proton found its antiproton, every electron found its antielectron and every neutron found its antineutron. But Professor Cornell said that married life is passionate but short for our particles.
When the particles found each other and stuck together, they would “pop” and annihilate
each other. The “pop” is an explosion which is a pulse of light and then the matter disappears altogether. This is what happened to all of these “short term relationships.”
So, in the minutes after the Big Bang, there was very nearly “somebody” for “everybody.” And then there were all the pulses of light and that crowed universe was suddenly not so crowded.
Professor Cornell asked, “who are the final, few, lonely particles that no one wanted?” (You can see in his slide, the lonely "n", "e" and "p.") He told us, “they’re you
So from the Big Bang, there was very nearly a perfect match for ever particle and antimatter particle created. Except, as Professor Cornell said, there was, “this tiny imperfection. This slight imbalance,” which had enormous consequences. “Mankind was born of this Original imperfection.”
This fascinating process is difficult to study. There are no time machines to go back billions of years ago. How do scientists like Professor Cornell do it? You can use telescopes. Telescopes allow scientists to “look back in time.” What is seen through the telescope, stars and galaxies, is how those things were a long time ago because it takes time for the light to travel to Earth to be seen through the telescope. So if a galaxy is 10 million light years away, we are seeing what was happening in that galaxy 10 million light years ago.
The farthest galaxy we can see is 13.3 billion light years away. That means we are seeing what the universe was like when it was just a tiny fraction of how old the universe is now. Professor Cornell says that seeing something 13.3 billion light years old is wonderful, it is not, however, “nearly early enough,” to see the “tiny imperfection” which was earlier than that.
Another approach to try to study what happened immediately after the Big Bang is to use particle colliders. Particle colliders can simulate the hot, dense, violent state of the early universe. The largest scientific instrument ever built is called the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) which is partly in Switzerland and partly in France.
Professor Cornell said that particle physicists were a little disappointed because they expected to see a whole “zoo” of new types of particles but that is not how it went. Overall, the results of the LHC experiments did not assist particle physicists in learning about the beginnings of the universe.
How else do particle physicists look for evidence of what happened at the beginning of the universe? Professor Cornell says they look for fossils. When we want to look for dinosaurs, there are no written records of them. Scientists have to find the bones of dinosaurs. The bones are not the original creature, but there is a significant amount of information contained in the bones that allow scientists to infer information about the dinosaurs.
Professor Cornell describes his work as looking for the fossil, or a remnant of, the Original imperfection. He said he’s looking for asymmetry in a universe full of symmetry.
Professor Cornell described himself as an experimental physicist. He said he uses screw drivers, soldering irons and lasers to figure physics out. There are also theoretical physicists who try to figure things out using math. (They create mathematical models that explain everything.)
Professor Cornell said, for those theoretical physicists, it’s very difficult to explain (mathematically) an early asymmetry in electrons, protons and neutrons, unless it also is reflected in modern particles. The theoretical physicists asked Professor Cornell to look, “very, very closely” at modern day particles, they ought to be asymmetric. And if they could see those asymmetries in modern day particles, it would help them to understand this early imperfection. Professor Cornell agreed to help look very closely at the simplest particle known, th
The electron is a charged particle, (it’s a negative charge), its got some mass and it spins and it has a north and south pole. Looking for symmetry, Professor Cornell looked to see if the north and south poles on the electron are exactly the same.
The Earth has a South Pole and a North Pole and Professor Cornell points out they are really different. The Earth’s South Pole has mountains, the North has sea ice. The North Pole has polar bears, the south has penguins. The question for the Professor was, is the electron the same or different from the Earth.
Perhaps, the electron’s charge might be closer to the north pole than the south pole. (Which would mean the electron wasn’t perfectly spherical, more egg shaped.) But, the electron is very small. (VERY small) It is difficult to see a very tiny variance of the placement of the charge on an electron. It might be like trying to see a variance the size of a human hair in an object the size of the Earth.
To see that tiny variance on an electron, they use molecular ions, using molecular spectroscopy. That means Professor Cornell and his team have an electron and imbed it in a molecule and shine a laser beam at the molecule and look for asymmetries.
This is what the room looks like:
Professor Cornell said the apparatus is “complicated.” (Suggesting that BRC’s lunch may not be the appropriate venue to dig into the super cool apparatus that can measure teeny tiny variances in electrons, Professor Cornell skipped the long explanation.)
Professor Cornell wanted to emphasize that it’s taken 15 years to work on this apparatus and it takes a large team of really talented people to do it. They are largely graduate students, in their 20s who come to Boulder to learn very high-end technical training and come out as experimental physics “bad-asses.”
Those pictured in the team come from five different countries; one has gone on to become a professor at Harvard; one is now a professor in Singapore; several of them are now working on the problem of quantum computing in local high-tech companies; some are teachers, some are entrepreneurs. Professor Cornell believes these people and their expertise is the real product of his lab.
The team was able to measure the electron about 15 times more accurately than it ever had been measure before. It was a mixed blessing because the electron was still looking perfectly symmetrical. Just 15 times more accurately symmetrical than it had ever been measured before.
Trying to make this measurement is an ongoing problem physicists have been looking at for nearly 60 years. There has not been much movement toward fine tuned accuracy until the last 20 years or so. And then in the last few years, along with Professor Cornell and his team’s work, they made it significantly more accurate. He pointed out that another group got close to his team’s work and he said, “in order to compete with the University of Colorado’s work [on this problem] Harvard and Yale had to team up!” (Go CU!) However, Harvard and Yale’s team were able to make even more improvements to the measurement about a year after Professor Cornell and his team completed their experiment.
Professor Cornell said that he and his team felt they have to continue to work on the accuracy of the measurement because they still had the pressure from the theoretical physicists to find the asymmetry. Comparing himself and his team to Charley Brown (the theoretical physicists are “Lucy” in this analogy) he said they just had to try to kick that football again.
He and his team plan to meet Harvard and Yale’s progress within the next year and within the next decade they will increase the accuracy by 20 times more than they have to date. If, in that experiment, they could find a non-zero (some tiny amount of asymmetry) Professor Cornell said it would be, “back to Stockholm for me, baby!” (We’re rooting for you Professor!)
Professor Cornell said they are left with the mystery. He considers it one of the great mysteries of cosmology or cosmo genesis.
He is often asked, “isn’t it frustrating?” He said “no” because he works with a team of people who are willing to take on the impossible and make significant progress towards and answer, knowing that it will take time, resources and the work of many to answer it. Those people, their training is his real work. He says that his team starts as brilliant and comes out of the program as world technological leaders.
Did you miss Professor Cornell’s presentation? Did you miss his headline grabbing assertion that Harvard, Yale and JILA were Accessories the Murder of the “Minimal Supersymmetric Model?” And his stunning admission that they were not just accessories but did in fact murder the minimal supersymmetric model!?! If so, you can learn the whole story by watching the video of the program, just click HERE
You can also see the rest of our Friday meeting by clicking HERE
You also can see lots of our previous programs and meeting by clicking on the TV icon below which will take you to the BRC Program Archive on our website. Please feel free to binge watch.