Q&A: Can Temperatures Ever Drop Below Absolute Zero?

Ahmed Ansari
By Ahmed Ansari December 20, 2013 23:30
1.Scientists were able to reverse the distribution of atoms at positive temperatures (blue), resulting in a negative temperature system (red). Courtesy of LMU/MPQ Munich.

1. Scientists were able to reverse the distribution of atoms at positive temperatures (blue), resulting in a negative temperature system (red). Courtesy of LMU/MPQ Munich.

In high school chemistry class, we learned that absolute zero is exactly what its name suggests: the lowest possible temperature that can occur, the threshold at which atoms lose all their kinetic energy and stop moving. However, physicists have actually recently created an atomic gas that exists below this threshold, or at negative temperatures.

The balls represent the distribution of atoms at three different temperatures: positive (blue), infinity (purple), and negative (red). Courtesy of LMU/MPQ Munich.

2. The balls represent the distribution of atoms at three different temperatures: positive (blue), infinity (purple), and negative (red). Courtesy of LMU/MPQ Munich.

The term “negative” is actually a bit misleading. “The gas is not colder than zero Kelvin, but hotter,” explained Dr. Ulrich Schneider, the physicist in charge of the project. “It is even hotter than at any positive temperature — the temperature scale simply does not end at infinity, but jumps to negative values instead.”

At positive temperatures (shown in blue), there are more low energy particles, whereas at negative temperatures (shown in red) there are more high-energy particles. Courtesy of LMU/MPQ Munich.

3. At positive temperatures (shown in blue), there are more low energy particles, whereas at negative temperatures (shown in red) there are more high-energy particles. Courtesy of LMU/MPQ Munich.

To explain the idea of negative temperature, the researchers describe their system in terms of hills and valleys. At absolute zero, atoms have no energy, and they are all at the bottom of the valley. As temperatures increase, some particles gain enough energy to move up the hill, but most remain at the bottom.

From left to right: At T=0 K, particles are at lowest energy; At T>0 K, most particles are at low energy and some have higher energy; At T=∞, there is an even distribution of particles at every energy level; At T<0 K, there are more particles at a higher energy level and fewer particles at the low energy level; At T= -0 K, all of the particles are at the highest energy level. Courtesy of LMU/MPQ Munich.

From left to right: At T=0 K, particles are at lowest energy; At T>0 K, most particles are at low energy and some have higher energy; At T=∞, there is an even distribution of particles at every energy level; At T

A temperature of exactly infinity is the balancing point. Here, enough particles have left the valley and spread out evenly along the hill’s slope. But past infinity, more particles are on the hill than in the valley — the exact opposite of the distribution in the positive temperature realm; this is what physicists call negative temperature.

In their groundbreaking experiment, researchers forced a gas into its highest possible energy state, achieving a temperature of a few billionths of a Kelvin below absolute zero. In the future, their work can allow for the study of other high-energy-systems that would otherwise collapse.

Ahmed Ansari
By Ahmed Ansari December 20, 2013 23:30