Scientists create the 5th form of matter for 6 minutes

It's exotic, incredibly cold stuff.

  • It was the first Bose-Einstein condensate made in space
  • Creating the condensate in low gravity allows it to hold longer
  • Scientists hope Bose-Einstein condensate will allow finer detection of subtle quantum phenomena

For six minutes, 150 miles above Kiruna, Sweden on January 23, 2017 floated the coldest known spot in the universe. As far as we know, the coldest anything in nature can be is absolute zero on the Kelvin scale, which is –459.67°F and –273.15°C. This postage-stamp-sized atom chip packed tight with thousands of rubidium-87 atoms was just a few billionths of a degree warmer than that. The atom chip was up there in low orbit to help a team of scientist study up-close some of the oddest, least-understood stuff there is: Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). The team of German scientists was led by Dennis Becker of QUEST-Leibniz Research School, Leibniz University Hannover, Hanover, Germany.

Bose-Einstein condensate is the fifth-known form of matter, after solids, liquids, gases, and plasma. When atoms in zero gravity reach a temperature close to absolute zero, they cede their individuality and act as one "super-atom." A that point, they're tens of thousands of atoms all vibrating in sync, creating something like a blob in which the tiniest of disturbances can be detected. Scientists hope that BEC can one day be harnessed for gravitational-wave detection.

The BEC on Earth

In 2010, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics packed a cylindrical capsule about the size and width of a door with a few million rubidium atoms trapped on an atom chip, lasers, the required energy supply, solenoids, and a camera. They dropped the capsule 146 meters from the top of a tower. It fell for about four seconds, and during the zero gravity of free-fall, they remotely generated a BEC on the atom chip in less than a second. (In the lab, it takes up to a minute.) Once the BEC formed, they released the trap and the camera allowed them to see its spread as it fell. They were able to observe the BEC for a few seconds before it hit bottom.

(Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics)

The 2010 experiment, close-up.

The mid-winter 2017 space BEC

The January 23rd experiment was the first time anyone's created the Bose-Einstein condensate in space. The low gravity allowed them to extend the viewing time too the BEC to six minutes, a massive improvement, allowing researcher to race through 110 remote-controlled experiments. The team's apparatus was launched into space under the auspices of the MAIUS 1, or Matter-Wave Interferometry in Microgravity.

(Becker, et al)

a. MAUIS launch vehicle; b. The launch compartment; c. The vacuum-sealed device holding the atom chip

The atomic chip

A magneto-optical trap holding the rubidium atoms formed by laser beams (C) is loaded on an atom chip via a cold-atom beam (A). The BEC is created in, transported by, and released from the magnetic trap of the atom chip. Two additional light beams (BD) induce Bragg diffraction scattering the BEC, and a charge-coupled device (CCD) camera records the BEC using laser light (D).

Image: Becker, et al.

Hurry up and experiment

In one significant experiment, researchers split the BEC with a laser and then were able to watch it rejoin. This could be an important technique because upon parting, the two halves were identical on a quantum level, and any differences observed after rejoicing would indicate some sort of interference, such as a gravitational wave.

NASA has their own Cloud Atom Lab, an ice-chest-sized environment deployed on the ISS for low-gravity BEC research. While Becker's team made the first space BEC, the NASA team has reportedly been extending the time a BEC can be maintained.

(Becker, et al)

January's experiments

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.