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Friday, September 10, 1999 Published at 08:15 GMT 09:15 UK


Scientists witness peculiar gas

The team made this image of the Fermionic gas (centre)

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

Scientists at the United States National Institute of Standards and Technology and University of Colorado have created a new form of matter called a Fermionic gas.

It consists of almost a million atoms of Potassium cooled to a few hundred millionths of a degree above absolute zero, the coldest possible temperature - minus 273 C.

The new gas follows the laws of quantum mechanics, the branch of science that describes the world of the very small in which everything, matter, energy and even space and time comes in lumps or quanta.

It means that the new gas will behave in ways that can only be observed in small systems and a million atoms of Potassium is certainly very small in nature's terms.

Fermions and Bosons

Every particle in nature can be classified as either a Fermion or a Boson. Fermions are the type of particles that make up the atom, ie electrons, protons and neutrons. The best known example of a boson is a photon, a particle of light.

Bosons and Fermions behave in very different ways exemplified by the Pauli exclusion principle first proposed by the Physicist Wolfgang Pauli in the 1920s.

Stated in technical terms, it says that no two Fermions can occupy the same energy state. In simpler terms it gives protons, neutrons and electrons a sort of identity, a space of their own that cannot be invaded by any other particle.

The Pauli exclusion principle is the reason why atoms exist at all. Without it, Fermions would not be able to congregate in such stable structures. The Fermionic gas holds no great surprises but scientists hope that they will soon be able to cool it even further and make it condense. They say a Fermionic condensate would have very strange properties indeed.

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