Five Incredible Physics Studies Published In 2020

IFLScience with additional imagery by CERN

Saying that 2020 has been a difficult year is an understatement. Science too had to learn to navigate this brave new world and among the many complexities of this year, we have still seen breakthroughs and advancements in all the fields. In physics, we think that these five stories represent some of the best work that has been released in the past 12 months.

Room-Temperature Superconductivity Has Been Achieved After 109 Years – With A Catch

Superconductivity allows for the flow of electricity without any resistance as well as the creation of some peculiar quantum effects using magnetic fields, such a levitation. Not every material is superconducting and those that are, need to be cooled down way below zero degrees. A material capable of being superconducting at room temperature has been a long-sought dream.

We finally have such material. It superconducts at a temperature of 15°C (59°F) but there is a big catch. It only works under extreme pressures. It has to be kept at a pressure of 2.5 million times the atmospheric pressure at sea level. This can only be achieved by using a squeezing it between two diamonds. Very exciting but not exactly the wonder-material that will change our lives.

Physicists Capture Individual Atoms Merging In World First

This year was also a year of incredible for studying atoms up close. Researchers were able to capture how a single molecule formed for the first time. The team placed three rubidium atoms in a vacuum chamber with no other atom and at just a fraction about absolute zero.

They found that the atoms took longer than expected, this could possibly be due to the atoms being isolated. Reactions are more likely to happen when there are a lot of atoms bouncing about, but it could also be due to simply the setup of the system. The team is investigating to better understand molecule formation.

This is a LASER-cooled atom cloud viewed through microscope camera. University of Otago

Researchers Have Finally Measured How Long It Takes For An Atom To Quantum Tunnel

If the laws of quantum mechanics were to work equally at a macroscopic level, then if we slam in a wall often enough, we would be able to go through them (please don’t try this at home, you’re not an electron).

This peculiar phenomenon is known as quantum tunneling. Put a particle in a box, and there’s a chance that it might escape simply by going through the sides. In 2020, physicists have finally worked out how long it takes atoms to quantum tunnel. A team measured that rubidium atoms cross a 1.3-micrometer-thick optical barrier in 0.6 milliseconds.

“We’ve known about tunneling for nearly a century, and use it in some of the fastest electronics, highest-precision magnetometers, superconducting qubits, etc – it is a disgrace that so much time has gone by without us truly understanding how long the process takes," senior author Professor Aephraim Steinberg told IFLScience in July. "Knowing this could help us understand many other related processes where a system can end up in more than one final state, which is pretty ubiquitous in quantum theory."

First Quantum Entanglement Of Distant Objects Large Enough To See

One of the most fascinating properties of quantum mechanics is entanglement. Individual particles become part of a single state, that even far part they instantaneously respond to changes. Entanglement is difficult to maintain and it has mostly been confined to a handful of particles.

But this year, for the first time, scientists were able to create quantum entanglement with a system that was large enough to see without a microscope. This is a major breakthrough in our ability to manipulate the quantum properties of systems.

Light propagating through the atomic cloud and then falling onto the special membrane on the left. Thanks to the light, atoms in the membrane become quantum correlated with atoms in the cloud. Niels Bohr Institute

Researchers See Tiny Quantum Fluctuations Move A Human-Sized Mirror

The cutting edge of physics is all about precision and high-quality measurements and it is truly awe-inspiring to see just what humanity is capable of. An incredible measurement comes from the LIGO, the gravitational wave observatory.

To catch those tiny changes gravitational waves created in space-time, the system requires incredible precision. Lasers and mirrors are used to spot these tiny differences. But there are other effects at play, that need to be taken into account. This includes quantum effects.

Researchers have measured those quantum fluctuations. The 40-kilogram (88-pound) mirror is constantly being moved by these fluctuations by 1 billion billion times smaller than your thumbnail. This might help improve our gravitational wave detectors but also show just how far our precise measurements can go.

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