AMHERST, Mass. - More than 200 physicists from around the world will meet at the University of Massachusetts June 9-14 for a physics symposium, said Robert Hallock, a UMass physicist and organizer for the Symposium on Quantum Fluids and Solids.
The scientists - who include three Nobel Prize winners - will attend lectures and poster sessions detailing the latest research in quantum fluids and solids, with special attention given to the element helium, Hallock said. "We essentially study what happens to helium when it nears -459 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature known as ‘absolute zero,’" the lowest temperature attainable, Hallock said.
Helium, usually an odorless, colorless gas, is most familiar as the gas that fills circus balloons. However, it is of particular interest to scientists because it has the lowest boiling point of all substances, transforms into a liquid which flows freely without friction, can be solidified only under pressure, and is a "noble" gas, meaning it does not readily combine chemically with any other element. These qualities make it extremely useful for studying how liquids and solids behave, Hallock said. "The research has a remarkably wide range of uses, including the study of earthquakes, and the formation of crystals, and it even offers some clues as to how the universe was formed," he said.
Helium is useful in industry as well, Hallock said. As a liquid, it is used in the medical world, particularly in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), where its role is to cool the magnets used in the MRI machines. In its solid state, helium is a soft substance, "much like Silly Putty," Hallock said. Under certain conditions the liquid is threaded with tornado-like structures called vortices. Under other conditions, it forms a thin friction-free film which coats the wall of its container, much like paint, which does not stay where you put it.
The University of Massachusetts is one of the leading centers for the study of quantum fluids.