Life is based on carbon. Despite its ubiquity, this essential element still transmits many secrets on earth and in the heavens above us.
These interstellar clouds are cold to an extreme that’s difficult to mimic in a lab, but Columbia has specialists in ultracold science. At a Physics Department retreat several years ago at Columbia’s Nevis Laboratory, astrophysicist Savin joined quantum physicist Sebastian Will. Will’s lab specializes in cooling atoms and molecules to their absolute limit with the assistance of lasers. Laser cooling methods have been advancing rapidly in recent years, but physicists’ typical choices of atoms and molecules don’t turn up too often in everyday life. Savin wanted to know: Could you cool carbon molecules?’
The beginning point for laser cooling any atom or molecule is to realize how it absorbs and emits light; that process curtails the kinetic energy of the atom or molecule, eventually cooling it down and taking it to a near standstill.
“Carbon molecules are absolutely essential building blocks for so many other molecules—it’s incredible to think about the possibilities of what we might be able to create with this new laser cooling scheme,” Bigagli explained. That could include blending carbon with hydrogen atoms to examine an important class of molecules called hydrocarbons.
“Only actual experiments will tell how successful the carbon cooling scheme will be,” said Will. He hopes that his lab will be able to build the basic laser setups soon. “We’ve shown that, fundamentally, this will work with state-of-the-art technology—we just need the resources to put it together,” he said.