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Scientists from Argonne's Physics Division, were part of a team of researchers developing techniques for capturing radium atoms in this magneto-optical trap. The group of physicists was attempting to trap the rare, radioactive element for studies of time-reversal violation. Finding examples of this effect has implications for physics beyond the Standard Model and for explaining why the Big Bang yielded an imbalance between matter and antimatter in the universe. Starting with less than a millionth of a gram of radium, the scientists vaporized, laser-cooled and captured the radium atoms in a magneto-optical trap- the first time this has been accomplished. Researchers were surprised to find the radium atoms- notoriously difficult to work with- were staying put much longer than expected. They realized the radium was being helped out by Blackbody radiation. Blackbody radiation is essentially heat; in this case, infrared radiation coming from the room-temperature walls of the apparatus. It's often a nuisance for experiments in physics, causing heating, contributing to background noise and scrambling quantum phases. However, when the radium atoms fell into metastable atomic states%u2014 in which the atoms could no longer %u201Csee%u201D the trapping lasers %u2014 during the laser-cooling, the blackbody radiation added enough energy to the atoms to "recycle" them back to a configuration in which they could %u201Csee%u201D the lasers again. This allowed the lasers to do their work and hold the atoms in place.

Science Source / Argonne National Laboratory

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