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What 'Negative Temperature' Really Means 204

On Friday we discussed news of researchers getting a quantum gas to go below absolute zero. There was confusion about exactly what that meant, and several commenters pointed out that negative temperatures have been achieved before. Now, Rutgers physics grad student Aatish Bhatia has written a comprehensible post for the layman about how negative temperatures work, and why they're not actually "colder" than absolute zero. Quoting: " first need to engineer a system that has an upper limit to its energy. This is a very rare thing – normal, everyday stuff that we interact with has kinetic energy of motion, and there is no upper bound to how much kinetic energy it can have. Systems with an upper bound in energy don’t want to be in that highest energy state. ...these systems have low entropy in (i.e. low probability of being in) their high energy state. You have to experimentally ‘trick’ the system into getting here. This was first done in an ingenious experiment by Purcell and Pound in 1951, where they managed to trick the spins of nuclei in a crystal of Lithium Fluoride into entering just such an unlikely high energy state. In that experiment, they maintained a negative temperature for a few minutes. Since then, negative temperatures have been realized in many experiments, and most recently established in a completely different realm, of ultracold atoms of a quantum gas trapped in a laser."
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What 'Negative Temperature' Really Means

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  • Uhhhh (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 05, 2013 @09:13PM (#42491741)

    This doesn't really help. I pondered this for a while the other day when I read that first and gave up trying to wrap my head around it. I was always under the impression that 0 kelvin (absolute 0) meant a state at which there was no movement at the atomic/subatomic level. It would seem as though to reach a negative temperature, one would have to slow a substances particles to less than 0 movement. Then I realized they were talking about a quantum state and I pretty much gave up trying to understand it at that point, because anything which has the word 'quantum' in it suddenly defies all the rules I'd ever been taught about anything at all. :o)

If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants. -- Isaac Newton