Physicists Spin Up Quantum Tornadoes

Shrink down to the level of atoms and you enter the quantum world, so supremely weird that even a physicist will sometimes gape. Hook that little world to our big, classical one, and a cat can be both alive and dead (sort of).

“If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics,” said the great Richard Feynman, four decades ago. And he knew what he was talking about (sort of).

Now comes a report on a quantum gas, called a Bose-Einstein condensate, which scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology first stretched into a skinny rod, then rotated until it broke up. The result was a series of daughter vortices, each one a mini-me of the mother form.

The research, published in Nature, was conducted by a team of scientists affiliated with the MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms and MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics.

The rotating quantum clouds, effectively quantum tornadoes, recall phenomena seen in the large-scale, classical world that we are familiar with. One example would be so-called Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds, which look like periodically repeating, serrated cartoon images of waves on the ocean.