Researchers from the Washington State University say that they have successfully managed to get a fluid of super chilled atoms to act as though it has negative mass. The researchers suggest that their discovery can be used to study stranger phenomena happening in the deep Universe.
What it means is that, unlike pretty much every other known physical object, when you push this fluid, it accelerates backwards instead of moving forwards. Such an oddity could tell scientists about some of the strange behavior that happens within black holes and neutron stars.
But, hold on for a second. How can something have a negative mass?
Hypothetically, just like electric charge, mass could also be positive or negative. On paper, its possible, but in reality it’s too screwed up for the human brain to fathom it.
Consider Isaac Newton’s second law of physics which says f=ma. Or force is equal to the product of mass and acceleration. Now, in case of an object with negative mass, if we push the object it should accelerate negatively and should push back the force pushing it in the first place.
This just seems impossible. But, not in the world of science.
Theoretical physicists have already proven that negative mass may exist in our universe. However, till date the theory was never realized in practice. However, that has changed.
“What’s a first here is the exquisite control we have over the nature of this negative mass, without any other complications,” said one of the researchers, Michael Forbes.
In this state, particles move incredibly slowly and follow the strange principles of quantum mechanics, rather than classical physics – which means they start to behave like waves, with a location that can’t be precisely pinpointed.
The particles also being to sync up and move in unison, forming what’s known as a superfluid – a substance that flows without losing energy to friction.
The team used lasers to keep this superfluid at the icy temperatures, but also to trap it in a tiny bowl-like field measuring less than 100 microns across.
While the superfluid remained contained in that space it had regular mass and, as far as Bose-Einstein condensates go, was pretty normal. But then the team forced the superfluid to escape.
Using a second set of lasers, they kicked the atoms back and forth to change their spin, breaking the ‘bowl’ and allowing the rubidium to come rushing out so fast that it behaved as if it had negative mass.
“Once you push, it accelerates backwards,” said Forbes. “It looks like the rubidium hits an invisible wall.”
So far, the researchers state that the negative mass fluid confirms what other teams have seen in their research, but it’s very early days.
It’s yet to be seen whether this escaping superfluid will be reliable and accurate enough to test out some of the very strange suggestions about negative mass in the lab, and before we get too excited, other teams need to replicate the results independently.
But the research has now been published in the peer-reviewed journal Physical Review Letters for anyone to try their hand at. So hopefully it won’t be long before we see the experiment recreated.