Absolute zero is often thought to be the coldest temperature possible. But now researchers show they can achieve even lower temperatures for a strange realm of "negative temperatures."
Oddly, another way to look at these negative temperatures is to consider them hotter than infinity, researchers added.
This unusual advance could lead to new engines that could technically be more than 100 percent efficient, and shed light on mysteries such as dark energy, the mysterious substance that is apparently pulling our universe apart.
An object's temperature is a measure of how much its atoms move — the colder an object is, the slower the atoms are. At the physically impossible-to-reach temperature of zero kelvin, or minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 273.15 degrees Celsius), atoms would stop moving. As such, nothing can be colder than absolute zero on the Kelvin scale.
Bizarro negative temperatures
To comprehend the negative temperatures scientists have now devised, one might think of temperature as existing on a scale that is actually a loop, not linear. Positive temperatures make up one part of the loop, while negative temperatures make up the other part. When temperatures go either below zero or above infinity on the positive region of this scale, they end up in negative territory.
To generate negative temperatures, scientists created a system where atoms do have a limit to how much energy they can possess. They first cooled about 100,000 atoms to a positive temperature of a few nanokelvin, or billionth of a kelvin. They cooled the atoms within a vacuum chamber, which isolated them from any environmental influence that could potentially heat them up accidentally. They also used a web of laser beams and magnetic fields to very precisely control how these atoms behaved, helping to push them into a new temperature realm. [Twisted Physics: 7 Mind-Blowing Findings]
"The temperatures we achieved are negative nanokelvin," Schneider told LiveScience.
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