Ghostly Visages

No, not of an alien at the window.

Here’s a little movie showing atoms being trapped and mistreated. What you’re seeing is a video of the monitor that’s hooked up to a little IR camera on the vacuum chamber. The really bright spot that’s squirming around a little are the atoms, or technically, the fluorescence from the atoms. There are probably more than a Sagan of them (i.e. biilliyuns) at about a milliKelvin or so in temperature (which is considered warm!) because it hasn’t been fine-tuned yet. The bluish circle is reflected light off of a flange, and there’s some other scattered light visible.

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About 10 seconds in, the trap’s magnetic field is turned off, and the atoms squirt off to the side. A second or two later the field is turned on again, and the trap fills up. If the lasers were properly aligned and balanced, and the earth’s magnetic field were either shielded or zeroed out with trim coils, then what you would see is a nice uniform expansion into a much colder (microKelvin-ish) optical molasses, but the earth’s field is still present here, so that gives rise to an imbalanced residual force which is small compared to the trapping force, so you only really notice it when the trapping field is turned off. The molasses impedes the motion of the atoms, but doesn’t technically trap them, i.e. it doesn’t define a point where the atoms should be, so when only the lasers are there, the atoms would normally just drift through, very slowly. But here they’re being shoved a little bit.

The accelerations involved here are large — these atoms can scatter a million photons a second, give or take, depending on the exact laser frequency, so even though an individual scatter changes the atom’s speed by about 6 mm/sec, when you scatter them that rapidly you can get accelerations of hundreds of g’s. But in the situation here, where the atoms are almost at rest, that’s balanced by an equally large acceleration from an opposing laser.