On the absolute temperature scale, which is used by physicists and is also called the Kelvin scale, it is not possible to go below zero – at least not in the sense of getting colder than zero kelvin.
According to the physical meaning of temperature, the temperature of a gas is determined by the chaotic movement of its particles – the colder the gas, the slower the particles. At zero kelvin (minus 273 degrees Celsius) the particles stop moving and all disorder disappears. Thus, nothing can be colder than absolute zero on the Kelvin scale. Physicists have now created an atomic gas in the laboratory that nonetheless has negative Kelvin values. These negative absolute temperatures have several apparently absurd consequences: although the atoms in the gas attract each other and give rise to a negative pressure, the gas does not collapse – a behavior that is also postulated for dark energy in cosmology.
The meaning of a negative absolute temperature can best be illustrated with rolling spheres in a hilly landscape, where the valleys stand for a low potential energy and the hills for a high one. The faster the spheres move, the higher their kinetic energy as well: if one starts at positive temperatures and increases the total energy of the spheres by heating them up, the spheres will increasingly spread into regions of high energy. If it were possible to heat the spheres to infinite temperature, there would be an equal probability of finding them at any point in the landscape, irrespective of the potential energy. If one could now add even more energy and thereby heat the spheres even further, they would preferably gather at high-energy states and would be even hotter than at infinite temperature. The Boltzmann distribution would be inverted, and the temperature therefore negative. At first sight it may sound strange that a negative absolute temperature is hotter than a positive one. This is simply a consequence of the historic definition of absolute temperature, however; if it were defined differently, this apparent contradiction would not exist.
This inversion of the population of energy states is not possible in water or any other natural system as the system would need to absorb an infinite amount of energy – an impossible feat! However, if the particles possess an upper limit for their energy, such as the top of the hill in the potential energy landscape, the situation will be completely different. The researchers in Immanuel Bloch’s and Ulrich Schneider’s research group have now realised such a system of an atomic gas with an upper energy limit in their laboratory, following theoretical proposals by Allard Mosk and Achim Rosch.
In their experiment, the scientists first cool around a hundred thousand atoms in a vacuum chamber to a positive temperature of a few billionths of a Kelvin and capture them in optical traps made of laser beams. The surrounding ultrahigh vacuum guarantees that the atoms are perfectly thermally insulated from the environment. The laser beams create a so-called optical lattice, in which the atoms are arranged regularly at lattice sites. In this lattice, the atoms can still move from site to site via the tunnel effect, yet their kinetic energy has an upper limit and therefore possesses the required upper energy limit. Temperature, however, relates not only to kinetic energy, but to the total energy of the particles, which in this case includes interaction and potential energy. The system of the Munich and Garching researchers also sets a limit to both of these. The physicists then take the atoms to this upper boundary of the total energy – thus realising a negative temperature, at minus a few billionths of a kelvin.