Scientists use olive oil to discover new universal physics law

Olive oil leads to the discovery of a law that applies to atoms, superconductors, and even high energy physics.

Scientists use olive oil to discover new universal physics law
  • Physicists at the Dutch research institute AMOLF used olive oil in an experiment on light phase transitions.
  • The scientists found that light would behave the same way in atoms, superconductors, and high energy physics.
  • The discovery can lead to applications in new computing and sensing systems.

The dressing in your salad might redefine science if you look carefully enough. Researchers in the Netherlands used a drop of olive oil to discover a new universal law of phase transitions.

The research was carried out by the Interacting Photons group of the AMOLF institute, which focuses on fundamental physics. The experiment involved dropping olive oil into an optical cavity system of photons bouncing back and forth between two mirrors. It was set up to explore how light goes through phase transitions the way it would in boiling water, for example.

What's fascinating, this system had "memory" in how the oil made photons interact with themselves, as the group leader Said Rodriguez explained. "We created a system with memory by placing a drop of olive oil inside the cavity", said Rodriguez. "The oil mediates effective photon-photon interactions, which we can see by measuring the transmission of laser light through this cavity."

The research team, which also included Rodriguez's PhD students Zou Geng and Kevin Peters, increased and decreased the distances between the mirrors at different speeds and noted how light transmitted through the cavity was affected. They saw that the direction in which the mirrors moved influenced how much light got through the cavity, finding that "the transmission of light through the cavity is non-linear." This behavior of light, called hysteresis, is present in the phase transitions of boiling water or magnetic materials.

The scientists also increased the speed with which the oil-filled cavity opened and closed, observing that under such conditions the hysteresis was not always present. This allowed them to extrapolate a universal law. "The equations that describe how light behaves in our oil-filled cavity are similar to those describing collections of atoms, superconductors and even high energy physics," elaborated Rodriguez, adding: "Therefore, the universal behavior we discovered is likely to be observed in such systems as well."

An optical cavity formed by two mirrors used in the experiment. Light going through the cavity bounces between the mirrors until leaving to where the transmission is measured. The scientists filled this cavity with olive oil and moved the mirrors at varying speeds.

Credit: Henk-Jan Boluijt (AMOLF)

The researchers think their discovery may have potential applications in computing or sensing systems.

Check out their new study in Physical Review Letters.

A mind-blowing explanation of the speed of light

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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Research suggests that aging affects a brain circuit critical for learning and decision-making.

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The contiguous U.S., horizontally divided into deciles (ten bands of equal population).

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