Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Absolute zero

Absolute zero is the lowest temperature that can be obtained in any macroscopic system and corresponds to 0 K (-273.15 °C; -459.69 °F). It can be shown from the laws of thermodynamics that the temperature can never be exactly absolute zero, although it is possible to achieve temperatures arbitrarily close to it. At absolute zero the molecules and atoms in a system are all in the ground state (i.e. the lowest possible energy state) and the system has the least possible amount of kinetic energy allowed by the laws of physics. This minimum energy corresponds to the zero point energy encountered in the quantum mechanical particle in a box problem.

For the case of free atoms at temperatures approaching absolute zero, most of the energy is in the form of translational motion and the temperature can be measured in terms of the speed of this motion, with slower speeds corresponding to lower temperatures. Due to quantum mechanical effects the speed at absolute zero is not precisely zero, but depends, as does the energy, on the size of space within which the atom is confined.

For some special systems and specific definitions of temperature, it is possible to obtain a negative temperature. A system with a negative temperature is not colder than absolute zero, rather it is - in a sense - hotter than infinite temperature. See Temperature for more information.

At very low temperatures in the vicinity of absolute zero, matter exhibits many unusual properties including superconductivity, superfluidity, and Bose-Einstein condensation. In order to study such phenomena, scientists have worked to obtain ever lower temperatures. As of 2003, the lowest temperature ever achieved was 450 pK, or 4.5 ×10-10 K. This was performed by Wolfgang Ketterle and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (A Leanhardt et al. 2003 Science 301 1513). [1]

The Boomerang nebula has recently been discovered to be the coldest place known outside a laboratory, being only -272 degrees Celsius (1 Kelvin). The nebula is 5,000 light-years from Earth (in the constellation Centaurus). [1]