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    • 2018-06-23 11:05:27
    • Article ID: 696458

    Is Nature Exclusively Left Handed? Using Chilled Atoms to Find Out

    Elegant techniques of trapping and polarizing atoms open vistas for beta-decay tests of fundamental symmetries, key to understanding the most basic forces and particles constituting our universe.

    • Credit: Dan Melconian

      The measurement chamber of the TRIUMF Neutral Atom Trap (TRINAT) experiment where the decays of potassium-37 atoms are observed. Beta particle detectors placed above and below the trap center, along the polarization axis, measure the momenta of the beta particles in the direction of, and opposite to, the nuclear polarization, allowing the precise measurement of the asymmetry to ±0.3 percent. Not shown are two micro-channel plate detectors and an electrostatic hoop system to collect and observe the daughter recoiling ions and shake-off electrons.

    The Science

    The study of how atoms radioactively decay has played a critical role in developing the standard model, our modern understanding of the most basic forces and particles constituting our universe. Experiments investigating one form of decay, where a radioactive nucleus emits a beta particle to become more stable, have led to revolutionary ideas that are part of the standard model. The most surprising result from beta decay to date is the discovery that nature is not ambidextrous, but appears to be “left-handed.” Handedness refers to a particle’s spin; if you curl the fingers of your left hand to follow the spin and your thumb points along the direction of motion, the particle is left-handed.

    The Impact

    Using lasers and magnetic fields, researchers are now able to suspend clouds of atoms in a small volume in space and polarize them with very high efficiency. These pioneering techniques provide an ideal source of short-lived atoms, allowing parameters of the beta decay to be measured with great precision. These measurements are sensitive to a wide variety of “new physics”—including whether or not nature is exclusively left-handed—which are predicted by many potential successors to the standard model, such as supersymmetry.


    Using the TRIUMF Neutral Atom Trap (TRINAT) facility, a collaboration from Texas A&M University, TRIUMF (Canada's national particle accelerator center), Tel Aviv University, and the University of Manitoba combined magneto-optical trapping and optical pumping techniques to produce an ideal source of short-lived potassium-37 atoms. The magneto-optical trap is extremely selective, only confining the isotope of interest. It provides a very compact, cold cloud of highly polarized atoms that decay from a very shallow trap within an exceptionally open geometry. This allows the researchers to measure the momenta of both the recoil and emitted beta daughters in a nearly background-free environment with minimal beta scattering effects. Two beta telescopes, placed along the polarization axis, observe the number of beta particles emitted parallel and anti-parallel to the nuclear polarization. The direction of the polarization is easily reversed by simply changing the sign of the circularly polarized optical-pumping light. This is an ideal situation for determining the correlation of the beta particle with the initial nuclear spin, that is, the beta asymmetry parameter.

    The asymmetry observed in the beta detectors determines the beta asymmetry parameter for potassium-37 to within 0.3 percent of its value. This is the best relative accuracy of any beta-asymmetry measurement in a nucleus or the neutron and is in agreement with the standard model prediction. This experiment has increased sensitivity to new physics compared to other nuclear searches. It improves the determination of the quark flavor changing strength parameter, Vud, for this nucleus by a factor of 4. The researchers have identified ways to improve the precision to better than a part-per-thousand, at which point the result will be complementary to searches for new physics at large-scale facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider. In addition to improving the beta asymmetry parameter measurement, researchers will use TRINAT to measure other polarized and unpolarized correlation parameters.


    This work was supported by the Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Nuclear Physics; the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada; and the Israel Science Foundation.


    B. Fenker, A. Gorelov, D. Melconian, J.A. Behr, M. Anholm, D. Ashery, R.S. Behling, I. Cohen, I. Craiciu, G. Gwinner, J. McNeil, M. Mehlman, K. Olchanski, P.D. Shidling, S. Smale, and C.L. Warner, "Precision measurement of the β asymmetry in spin-polarized 37K decay." Physical Review Letters 120, 062502 (2018). [DOI: 10.1103/physrevlett.120.062502]

    B. Fenker, J.A. Behr, D. Melconian, R.M.A. Anderson, M. Anholm, D. Ashery, R.S. Behling, I. Cohen, I. Craiciu, J.M. Donohue, C. Farfan, D. Friesen, A. Gorelov, J. McNeil, M. Mehlman, H. Norton, K. Olchanski, S. Smale, O. Thériault, A.N. Vantyghem, and C.L. Warner, "Precision measurement of the nuclear polarization in laser-cooled, optically pumped 37K." New Journal of Physics 18, 073028 (2016). [DOI: 10.1088/1367-2630/18/7/073028]

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    Researchers switch material from one state to another with a single flash of light

    Scientists from the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have demonstrated a surprisingly simple way of flipping a material from one state into another, and then back again, with single flashes of laser light.

    The Stories Behind the Science: How Does the Ocean's Saltiness Affect Tropical Storms?

    Two researchers with personal experience of hurricanes set out to investigate the role of an underestimated factor in storm's strength - salinity. They found that salinity plays a larger role than anyone thought, including them.

    Surprise finding: Discovering a previously unknown role for a source of magnetic fields

    Feature describes unexpected discovery of a role the process that seeds magnetic fields plays in mediating a phenomenon that occurs throughout the universe and can disrupt cell phone service and knock out power grids on Earth.

    Genetic behavior reveals cause of death in poplars essential to ecosystems, industry

    Scientists studying a valuable, but vulnerable, species of poplar have identified the genetic mechanism responsible for the species' inability to resist a pervasive and deadly disease. Their finding could lead to more successful hybrid poplar varieties for increased biofuels and forestry production and protect native trees against infection.

    Pushing the (Extra Cold) Frontiers of Superconducting Science

    Ames Laboratory has developed a method to measure magnetic properties of superconducting and magnetic materials that exhibit unusual quantum behavior at very low temperatures in high magnetic fields.

    Scientists Find Unusual Behavior in Topological Material

    Argonne scientists have identified a new class of topological materials made by inserting transition metal atoms into the atomic lattice of a well-known two-dimensional material.

    Wind Farms and Reducing Hurricane Precipitation

    New research reveals an unexpected benefit of large-scale offshore wind farms: the ability to lessen precipitation from hurricanes.

    New simulations confirm efficiency of waste-removal process in plasma device

    PPPL scientists have found evidence suggesting that a process could remove the unwanted ash produced during fusion reactions and make the fusion processes more efficient within a type of fusion facility known as a field-reversed configuration device.

    How Animals Use Their Tails to Swish and Swat Away Insects

    A new study shows how animals use their tails to keep mosquitoes at bay by combining a swish that blows away most of the biting bugs and a swat that kills the ones that get through.

    Missing gamma-ray blobs shed new light on dark matter, cosmic magnetism

    Scientists, including researchers from the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, have compiled the most detailed catalog of such blobs using eight years of data collected with the Large Area Telescope (LAT) on NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope. The blobs, including 19 gamma-ray sources that weren't known to be extended before, provide crucial information on how stars are born, how they die, and how galaxies spew out matter trillions of miles into space.

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    Engineering professor receives Department of Energy grant

    New Mexico State University Department of Civil Engineering Assistant Professor Ehsan Dehghan Niri has received a United States Department of Energy grant. This is a three-year award for $400,000 and is a collaboration with Arizona State University.

    AVS and AIP Publishing Expand Partnership to Launch AVS Quantum Science

    AIP Publishing and AVS: Science and Technology of Materials, Interfaces, and Processing (AVS) today announced an agreement to publish AVS Quantum Science, a new online interdisciplinary journal. The announcement coincides with the AVS 65th International Symposium & Exhibition in Long Beach, California, from October 21-26, 2018.

    Prototype Solar Energy, Battery Systems to Fuel Commercialization

    Designing, building and testing prototype systems that show how renewable energy can power devices, such as a weather and soil sensor station, can help bridge the gap between basic science research and commercialization.

    Argonne to Advance High Performance Computing in Manufacturing

    Argonne awarded funding to partner with Industry to advance the use of high performance computing in manufacturing.

    "Invisible Glass" Wins 2018 Create the Future Design Contest Grand Prize

    Scientists from the Center for Functional Nanomaterials developed a technique for making nonreflecting glass, silicon, and plastic surfaces.

    Missouri S&T researchers win multimillion dollar grant to build fast-charging stations for electric cars

    Researchers from Missouri S&T and three private companies will combine their expertise to create charging stations for electric vehicles that could charge a car in less than 10 minutes - matching the time it takes to fill up a conventional vehicle with gasoline."The big problem with electric vehicles is range, and it's not so much range as range anxiety.

    Making batteries store more energy, last longer

    A new solid polymer electrolyte may help make cell phone batteries store more energy and last longer.

    Three Brookhaven Lab Scientists Named Fellows of American Physical Society

    The American Physical Society (APS), the world's largest physics organization, has elected three scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory as 2018 APS fellows.

    Southern Research first to win accreditation under ISO 14034

    Southern Research has become the first organization in the United States to earn accreditation under ISO 14034, a new international standard for evaluating and verifying environmental technologies that was recently adopted by the American National Standards Institute.

    Kawtar Hafidi to head Physical Sciences and Engineering directorate at Argonne

    Physicist Kawtar Hafidi has been appointed Associate Laboratory Director, Physical Sciences and Engineering at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.

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    Cryocooler Cools an Accelerator Cavity

    Researchers demonstrated cryogen-free operation of a superconducting radio-frequency cavity that might ease barriers to its use in societal applications.

    Shining Light on the Separation of Rare Earth Metals

    New studies identify key molecular characteristics to potentially separate rare earth metals cleanly and efficiently with light.

    Placing Atoms for Optimum Catalysts

    Precise positioning of oxygens could help engineer faster, more efficient energy-relevant chemical transformations.

    How to Make Soot and Stardust

    Scientists unlock mystery that could help reduce emissions of fine particles from combustion engines and other sources.

    Breaking the Symmetry Between Fundamental Forces

    Scientists improve our understanding of the relationship between fundamental forces by re-creating the earliest moments of the universe.

    Water Plays Unexpected Role in Forming Minerals

    Water molecules line up tiny particles to attach and form minerals; understanding how this happens impacts energy extraction and storage along with waste disposal.

    Heavy Particles Get Caught Up in the Flow

    First direct measurement show how heavy particles containing a charm quark get caught up in the flow of early universe particle soup.

    Seeing Between the Atoms

    New detector enables electron microscope imaging at record-breaking resolution.

    Scaling Up Single-Crystal Graphene

    New method can make films of atomically thin carbon that are over a foot long.

    Discovered: Optimal Magnetic Fields Suppress Instabilities in Tokamak Plasmas

    U.S. and Korean scientists show how to find and use beneficial 3-D field perturbations to stabilize dangerous edge-localized modes in plasma.


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