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Cornell University
LASSP -  Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics

Cornell Laboratory for Atomic and Solid State Physics

Mueller and Reichl show quantum tsunamis are actually smoke rings

By shining light on a gas cooled to temperatures near absolute zero, physicists can create waves that propagate through the gas while maintaining their shape - the quantum version of a tsunami traveling through the ocean. By studying the motion of these "solitary waves" or "solitons" one learns about the underlying interactions between the atoms in the gas. In particular, one can test theories about the quantum mechanics of many interacting particles, with applications ranging from understanding the properties of neutron stars to the behavior of electronic devices. In work reported in Nature [Yefsah et al. Nature 499, 426 (2013)], experimentalists at MIT found solitons that moved many times slower than any known model, suggesting holes in our understanding of nature. Following up on a suggestion of Aurel Bulgac and collaborators [Bulgac et al. arXiv:1306.4266, to appear in Physical Review Letters], Prof Erich Mueller and Matthew Reichl, [arXiv:1309.7012, to appear in Physical Review A] explain the observations by showing that the solitons rapidly break up into structures reminiscent of smoke rings. The slow motion of these "vortex rings" is completely consistent with the experiments, which lack the resolution to distinguish between a tsunami and a smoke ring. This theoretical work will inspire further refinements in the experiments that will definitively identify the waves produced.