Where is the coolest lab in the universe?

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) performs an impressive feat every time it accelerates billions of protons to nearly the speed of light – and not in terms of the energy alone. For example, you release more energy when you clap your palms together once than the energy imparted to a proton accelerated by the LHC. The impressiveness arises from the fact that the energy of your clap is distributed among billions of atoms while the latter all resides in a single particle. It’s impressive because of the energy density.

A proton like this should have a very high kinetic energy. When lots of protons with such amounts of energy come together to form a macroscopic object, the object will have a high temperature. This is the relationship between subatomic particles and the temperature of the object they make up. The outermost layer of a star is so hot because its constituent particles have a very high kinetic energy. Blue hypergiant stars, thought to be the hottest stars in the universe, like Eta Carinae have a surface temperature of 36,000 K and a surface 57,600-times larger than that of the Sun. This isn’t impressive on the temperature scale alone but also on the energy density scale: Eta Carinae ‘maintains’ a higher temperature over a larger area.

Now, the following headline and variations thereof have been doing the rounds of late, and they piqued me because I’m quite reluctant to believe they’re true:

This headline, as you may have guessed by the fonts, is from Nature News. To be sure, I’m not doubting the veracity of any of the claims. Instead, my dispute is with the “coolest lab” claim and on entirely qualitative grounds.

The feat mentioned in the headline involves physicists using lasers to cool a tightly controlled group of atoms to near-absolute-zero, causing quantum mechanical effects to become visible on the macroscopic scale – the feature that Bose-Einstein condensates are celebrated for. Most, if not all, atomic cooling techniques endeavour in different ways to extract as much of an atom’s kinetic energy as possible. The more energy they remove, the cooler the indicated temperature.

The reason the headline piqued me was that it trumpets a place in the universe called the “universe’s coolest lab”. Be that as it may (though it may not technically be so; the physicist Wolfgang Ketterle has achieved lower temperatures before), lowering the temperature of an object to a remarkable sliver of a kelvin above absolute zero is one thing but lowering the temperature over a very large area or volume must be quite another. For example, an extremely cold object inside a tight container the size of a shoebox (I presume) must be lacking much less energy than a not-so-extremely cold volume across, say, the size of a star.

This is the source of my reluctance to acknowledge that the International Space Station could be the “coolest lab in the universe”.

While we regularly equate heat with temperature without much consequence to our judgment, the latter can be described by a single number pertaining to a single object whereas the former – heat – is energy flowing from a hotter to a colder region of space (or the other way with the help of a heat pump). In essence, the amount of heat is a function of two differing temperatures. In turn it could matter, when looking for the “coolest” place, that we look not just for low temperatures but for lower temperatures within warmer surroundings. This is because it’s harder to maintain a lower temperature in such settings – for the same reason we use thermos flasks to keep liquids hot: if the liquid is exposed to the ambient atmosphere, heat will flow from the liquid to the air until the two achieve a thermal equilibrium.

An object is said to be cold if its temperature is lower than that of its surroundings. Vladivostok in Russia is cold relative to most of the world’s other cities but if Vladivostok was the sole human settlement and beyond which no one has ever ventured, the human idea of cold will have to be recalibrated from, say, 10º C to -20º C. The temperature required to achieve a Bose-Einstein condensate is the temperature required at which non-quantum-mechanical effects are so stilled that they stop interfering with the much weaker quantum-mechanical effects, given by a formula but typically lower than 1 K.

The deep nothingness of space itself has a temperature of 2.7 K (-270.45º C); when all the stars in the universe die and there are no more sources of energy, all hot objects – like neutron stars, colliding gas clouds or molten rain over an exoplanet – will eventually have to cool to 2.7 K to achieve equilibrium (notwithstanding other eschatological events).

This brings us, figuratively, to the Boomerang Nebula – in my opinion the real coolest lab in the universe because it maintains a very low temperature across a very large volume, i.e. its coolness density is significantly higher. This is a protoplanetary nebula, which is a phase in the lives of stars within a certain mass range. In this phase, the star sheds some of its mass that expands outwards in the form of a gas cloud, lit by the star’s light. The gas in the Boomerang Nebula, from a dying red giant star changing to a white dwarf at the centre, is expanding outward at a little over 160 km/s (576,000 km/hr), and has been for the last 1,500 years or so. This rapid expansion leaves the nebula with a temperature of 1 K. Astronomers discovered this cold mass in late 1995.

(“When gas expands, the decrease in pressure causes the molecules to slow down. This makes the gas cold”: source.)

The experiment to create a Bose-Einstein condensate in space – or for that matter anywhere on Earth – transpired in a well-insulated container that, apart from the atoms to be cooled, was a vacuum. So as such, to the atoms, the container was their universe, their Vladivostok. They were not at risk of the container’s coldness inviting heat from its surroundings and destroying the condensate. The Boomerang Nebula doesn’t have this luxury: as a nebula, it’s exposed to the vast emptiness, and 2.7 K, of space at all times. So even though the temperature difference between itself and space is only 1.7 K, the nebula also has to constantly contend with the equilibriating ‘pressure’ imposed by space.

Further, according to Raghavendra Sahai (as quoted by NASA), one of the nebula’s cold spots’ discoverers, it’s “even colder than most other expanding nebulae because it is losing its mass about 100-times faster than other similar dying stars and 100-billion-times faster than Earth’s Sun.” This implies there is a great mass of gas, and so atoms, whose temperature is around 1 K.

All together, the fact that the nebula has maintained a temperature of 1 K for around 1,500 years (plus a 5,000-year offset, to compensate for the distance to the nebula) and over 3.14 trillion km makes it a far cooler “coolest” place, lab, whatever.