Monday, January 19, 2009

Bose-Einstein Condensate Refracting Telescopes

With their ability to slow down light by 100 million or more times, does this mean that Bose-Einstein Condensates have very high refractive indexes and therefore excellent for telescope use?


By: Vanessa Uy


Though not yet mentioned - as far as I know - throughout Star Trek’s 40 or so years of history, just imagine a substance with the ability to slow down light from 300 million meters per second to 3 meters per second – the speed of a little girl riding a bike. With a substance like this, can we ever make the ultimate refracting telescope – i.e. the kind that uses lenses to magnify far away objects – using this substance as our lens?

For about 8 years or so, scientists have been experimenting with Bose-Einstein Condensate and had been observing their property of being able to slow down the speed of light as it passes through them by a factor of 100 million – even a little bit more in subsequent laboratory experiments. Given this kind of refractive index, which since hitherto we can only dream of, will we be soon making astronomical telescopes using Bose-Einstein Condensate for the lenses?

Currently, Bose-Einstein Condensates are still seen as mere “laboratory curiosity”. But since lab experiments have shown that given their ability to slow down light, Bose-Einstein Condensates certainly have refractive indexes several order of magnitudes greater than the ophthalmology-grade glass – which is 35% lead to increase it’s refractive index - currently used as optical lenses in telescope construction. Even the refractive index of diamond lenses – even if you can afford to use one – still pales in comparison to a lens constructed out of Bose-Einstein Condensate.

The higher the refractive index means the smaller or more compact you can make your telescope compared to one made using lenses with a lower refractive index, even if both of them are rated with the same powers of magnification. Looks like Bose-Einstein Condensates will have their first practical use in the field of astronomy. But if Bose-Einstein Condensates are a miracle material when it comes to refracting telescope construction, how come nobody has built one yet?

Using present technology, Bose-Einstein Condensates exists only in temperatures very near to that of absolute zero. It would be very impractical to construct a Bose-Einstein Condensate telescope the size of a Soviet-era RPG-7 with magnification ability comparable to that of the Keck telescope in Hawaii. When it’s cooling system – to maintain the structural integrity of the Bose-Einstein Condensate lenses – is the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Given the somewhat “rapid” advances in technology, a Bose-Einstein Condensate astronomical telescope could be built – someday. Remember back in the 1980’s where 12-bit digital video processing and CCD or charge coupled device cameras with peak quantum efficiencies approaching 85% can only be found in US National Security Agency reconnaissance satellites. Today 12-bit digital video processing is now de rigeur in DVD players – even those made in China. And high quantum efficiency CCD cameras can be easily bought in better specialist astronomy shops at prices from 200 to 1,000 US dollars each – which is nigh on impossible to purchase during the Reagan Administration. Plus those bolometer-on-a-chip helmet-mounted thermal-imaging cameras used by firefighters that used to cost 6,000 dollars 15 years ago can now even be bought for less than the hundred dollars in some garage sales and swap meets.

Technological advances always mean a quantum leap in performance coupled by a dramatic reduction in price and widespread ability. Who knows that 200 years from now, telescopes made from room temperature Bose-Einstein Condensate lenses will be widely available, even to middle-school kids. Too bad Gene Roddenberry haven’t built one for Captain James T. Kirk in the original series of Star Trek.

7 comments:

Je M'Apelle Ja'Nelle said...

Before I've heard of Bose-Einstein Condensates and their effects on the speed of light, I've read a book called The Cosmic Dancers by Amit and Maggie Goswami that explores the science of science fiction stories. As the book was first published around 1985 - way before the world of science had ever synthesized Bose-Enstein Condensates samples in the lab, it tells of an ultra-dense crystal with an ability to slow down light radically. With this crystal, light would take several minutes - some specimenns takes 20 years - for light to pass through. Too bad the author of such science fiction "magic wand" had not included a Bose-Enstein quantum statistical equation that describes its refractive index.

Sherry Rashad said...

The last time I've read The Cosmic Dancers by Amit Goswami and Maggie Goswami was back in 1997 - although I did find it odd why Amit Goswami haven't mentioned - based on my hazy memory - the great Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose whose collaboration with Albert Einstein back in 1924 led to the Bose-Einstein theory of quantum statistics - a math that is very useful in helping a new generation of physicists synthesize and study Bose-Einstein Condensate. A weird material ablle to slow down light to a few meters per second from 300-million meters per second. Instead, Amit Goswami talked about this ultra-dense crystal with a very high refractive index. In Goswami's defense, he probably wrote the book back in the early 1980s - more than a decade before the Bose-Einstein Condensate was synthesized around 1997. Dutch physicist Lene Vestergaad Hau was one of the first ever scientists to slow down light to within a few meters per second using Bose-Einstein Condensate.

Kat said...

I recently saw The Cosmic Dancers by Amit and Maggie Goswami being offered on sale at Amazon at a very keen price. I will buy it given your very favorable word of mouth review.
Basing on the work of Dr. Lene Vestergaard Hau on Bose-Einstein Condensates; Currently we can only create Bose-Einstein Condensate at quantities of only a million or so atoms in size, far too small for use in a practical refracting telescope. Plus, Bose-Einstein Condensates could suddenly revert to ordinary atoms if light / electromagnetic radiation / photons of sufficient energy for a prolonged period of time. BECs are like vampires, bright light kills it, but who knows what the future might bring? Even Gene Roddenberry haven't even thought of it.

Chelle said...

For the record, Lene Vestergaad Hau is Danish : )

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lene_Hau

Sans Ferdinand said...

With the on-going advances in Aerogel insulation and fabrication technology, we might -in the near future - see Bose-Einstein Condensate-on-a-chip like products being sold in Radio Shack or Circuit City. Not just for refractive telescope / optical use, but also for use in ultra-compact digital cameras / webcams / mobile phone / digital cameras and quantum computer data processing chips. Bose-Einstein-Condensate-On-A-Chip based technologies could be the wave of the future.

Ringo said...

Speaking of eventual "practical" applications of Bose-Einstein Condensate in refracting astronomical telescopes, advances in Aerogel insulation technology to allow cooling at near absolute zero temperatures could make Bose-Einstein-Condensate-on-a-chip devices be widely available in Radio Shack or Circuit City branches sooner than you think.

May Anne said...

Bose-Einstein-Condensate-On-A-Chip? Would that be more useful as a processor in quantum computing? Given that the Bolometer-On-A-Chip became a "commercial" reality back in 1992, Bose-Einste0n-Condensate-On-A-Chip devices seems not so far off.