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Bose-Einstein Condensation

Birds of a Feather Flock Together

R Nityananda

Rajaram Nityananda

works at the Raman

Research Institute,

Bangalore, mainly on

areas of condensed matter

physics and astronomy

accessible via optics and

statistical physics. He

continues to teach and

popularise rather basic

areas of physics while

admiring more modem

trends from a safe

distance. His tastes in

travel, music, and food

are optimally satisfied by

listening to Hindi fllm

music half as old as he is

while eating potato chips

in a sleeper coach.

142

gas of photons which explained Planck's law for thermal

radiation at one stroke. Einstein not only recognised the

importance ofthis idea but immediately applied it to a more

conventional gas like helium. In this case, unlike that of

radiation, the number of particles is held fixed. He derived

the stunning conclusion that a finite fraction of the particles could settle in the lowest energy state even above

absolute zero. These ideas had to wait fourteen years for

their first application. Seventy years later they are being

used in atomic physics laboratories all over the world.

Everybody is talking about Bose-Einstein condensation. This

discovery made in 1924 seems to have exploded like a time bomb

seventy years later. How did these two names come together?

S N Bose was a teacher of physics in Dacca, as far from the

mainstream as one could imagine. Einstein was, of course, the

giant who had already given the world special and general

relativity, the light quantum, Brownian motion. The story is an

extraordinary one, and it has been told earlier in these pages

when the central figure was Bose [1]. Now let us look at it from

Einstein's point of view. He struggled for 20 years with the

concept of the light quantum and Planck's radiation formula

[2]. Suddenly, a bolt from the blue arrived. Someone he had

never heard of was proposing a new derivation of Planck's

formula for the intensity of blackbody radiation. It made no

reference to waves whatsoever, being stated entirely in the

language of photons. Many times in the history of mathematics

and physics, such letters have been ignored. The idea is too

revolutionary and the author too unknown. Let us salute Einstein

for not taking that easy path. He read the paper, recognised its

~,

Bose-Einstein Condensation

";<:{~~.,

'-ii

note on its importance and forwarded it for publication.

Superficially, the mathematical steps in Bose's discussion of a

gas of photons resembled what Boltzmann had gone through

fifty years earlier, in the discussion of ordinary gases. We

describe the basic idea here. Common observation shows that a

gas fills its container uniformly. In other words, the probability

distribution of the position of any particle in the gas is a constant

function within the container. A more difficult experiment is

needed if we want to find the probability distribution of the xcomponent of the velocity of the molecules (for example). This

is found to be the famous bell shaped curve known as the

Gaussian distribution. As a function of velocity it is e(-const x v2x )

and similarly for they andz components. In terms of the energy

E of a state, this translates into a number of particles per state, n

proportional to e (-fJE). The science of statistical physics tries to

understand why these particular distributions, for the position

and for the velocity, are special. After all, nothing in the laws of

physics prevents all the molecules being on one side of the

container, at least for some time. Likewise, nothing forbids a

situation where all the molecules have the same speed, half

going to the left and half to the right. Again, this situation could

occur at some time and change because of collisions.

Boltzmann took two approaches to the problem, both of them

deep and fruitful. One was to ask how any such initial state

would evolve with time. Clearly, not even Boltzmann could say

with certainty what the precise outcome of a huge number of

molecular collisions would be. So he made a guess about what

was the most probable number of collisions changing the velocities of the molecules in various ways. This led to the famous

distribution law named after him and is sketched in Figure 1.

The probability of finding a molecule in a single state of a given

energy is proportional to an exponential function of the energy.

But this method of collisions is not the whole story. One can and Boltzmann did -look at the matter in a different way. Take

a coin tossed ten times. To say that five heads turned up is not a

-RE-S-O-N-A-N-C-E--I--D-ec-e-m-b-e-r-2-0-05----------~-----------------------------143-

Rajaram Nityananda

distribution of particles

over energy states.

low temperature

\/

, :

, '", -"~.

".,'.

'\

intecmediate tempetature

.~............

of a total 1024 possible outcomes of ten tosses.

tosses were heads, this can happen in manyl ways. Similarly, to

say that a gas has a certain distribution of velocities is not a

complete description; this can happen in many ways. All one has

to do is to count the number of ways, and this tells us the state in

which the gas is most likely to be found. Boltzmann was able to

show that the most probable behaviour of a gas, the one which

can occur in the largest number of ways, is to fill the container

uniformly, and have a gaussian distribution for each component

of the velocity vector.

With this background, we can state what was revolutionary in

the paper that Bose sent to Einstein. Treating the photons as a

gas, he used a counting rule different from Boltzmann's. Again,

we give only the basic idea here. Take two different boxes, called

I and 2, and two balls, called A and B. Let us look at all possible

states of the system. Clearly there are four of them, which we can

symbolically denote as Al BI, A2 B2, Al B2 and A2 Bl. Bose's

counting rule was equivalent to saying there were only three

states, with the last two viz. AIB2 and A2Bl, counted as one.

This was as if someone had rubbed off the letters A and B

painted on the two balls. One says that in Bose's way of counting,

the particles are indistinguishable. We can see what effect this has

in our simple example. The two cases in which both the particles

-44------------------------------~----------R-E-SO-N-A-N-C-E--I--D-e-ce-m-b-e-r-2-0-0-5

Bose-Einstein Condensation

~~t,'<,

"---"'

gas at a high and at a low

temperature.

~'"

at low temperatures

'~

~

...............

high tempecatures

.......

tempecature

are in the same state (A 1 Bland A2 B2) now get two thirds of the

weight, instead of half as in Boltzmann's way of counting. This

result carries over in more general cases with many more boxes

and balls. The example given above shows that the Bose distribution 2 gives more weightage to situations in which many

particles occupy the same state. And this extra weightage was

able to explain the observed distribution of photons over frequency in thermal radiation.

Einstein had an immediate additional deep insight into the

consequences of Bose's counting rule. In the case of photons, the

total number of particles actually decreases as we decrease the

total energy of the system (equivalently, as we lower the temperature). In fact, the total number of photons is proportional to

the cube of the absolute temperature. Since their average energy

is proportional to the temperature, the total energy per unit

volume is proportional to the fourth power of the temperature.

However, if we apply Bose statistics to a gas of helium atoms in

a box, we must obviously keep the number of atoms fixed as the

temperature varies. So the precise formula for the number of

atoms in a state with energy E is different from what Bose used

in the case of photons. It looks very similar, but contains an

additional term denoted by J.l subtracted from the energy. The

formula reads 3

n = 1/(1 +exp(ft.-E-p))).

2 The

HI. P is inversely

proportional to the temperature

n=lI(exp(pE

constant.

3 One simple way of understanding the origin of such a term is as

follows. let us imagine a "reservoir" which contains a large number of helium atoms, all having

energy p. Connect the reservoir

to our box. Every time we move a

particle from the reservoir into

our box to a state of energy E. the

total energy of the system

changes by E-p. The box alone

now behaves like a system with

a variable number of particles.

where the energy E is replaced

by E-p. Clearly p. cannot be

greater than zero in this formula

since n would become negative

for E< p.

-R-ES-O-N-A-N--CE--I--D-e-c-e-m-b-e-r-2-0-0-5----------~-------------------------------145-

Rajararn Nityananda

temperature is lowered, more and more particles pile into the

lowest energy state. (For the gas of photons, they just disappear

from the system). At a low temperature, but one which is still above

absolute zero, the answer for the number of particles in the lowest

state becomes infinite because f.J approaches zero from below. A

lesser man might have concluded that something absurd was

happening and the whole counting rule had to be abandoned.

But Einstein realised that this infinite answer, though wrong,

held the key to what was really happening in the gas as it was

being cooled. He boldly said that one has to treat the lowest

energy state as a separate entity from all the other states. All

physical quantities would receive separate contributions from

the lowest state, called the 'condensate', and from all other

states. In a Boltzmann gas the contribution of any single state,

even the one of lowest energy, is negligible because there are so

many states which have nearby energies. But the Bose counting

rule tilts the balance in favour of a finite fraction of the particles

being in the lowest energy state, below the special value of the

temperature which Einstein had calculated. The values of density N and temperature T can be described as those which give

approximately one particle per thermal de Broglie wavelength

AT' For typical energy kBT, the corresponding momentum is

(2mkBT )112 and the wavelength A,. equals h/(2mk BT) 112. The

number of particles in a volume A,3 T is N(h 3/(2mk BT)3/2). When

this exceeds 14.54, the condensation begins. This can be achieved

by raising N or lowering T.

One should remember that Einstein was not motivated by any

experimental fact regarding gases in his work. He was following

the basic principles of statistical physics to their logical, though

amazing, conclusion. He also had a deep conviction that Bose's

counting rule was not just a trick to undentand radiation but a

new general principle. When Einstein wrote his paper, and for

more than a decade later, it did not appear that there was any

direct connection with known phenomena. Even fourteen years

later, in 1938, the eminent quantum and statistical physicist

-46-----------------------------~----------R-ES-O-N-A-N-C-E--1--oe-c-e-m-be-r--20-0-S

Bose-Einstein Condensation

Fritz London could say that "In the course of time, the degeneracy of the Bose-Einstein gas has rather got the reputation of

having a purely imaginary existence". In the same paper that we

have quoted, London noted that at the density of liquid helium,

the temperature for Bose-Einstein condensation of an ideal gas

would be about three degrees above absolute zero.4 Liquid

helium shows new properties below 2.1 degrees Kelvin [3].

London boldly suggested that these new properties were a

consequence of Bose-Einstein condensation. He was fully aware

that liquid helium was very far from being an ideal gas. There is

a strong repulsive force between two atoms which came too close

to each other, and a weaker attractive force at larger distances.

Recent experiments, sixty years after London, show that his

guess regarding liquid helium was right. About ten per cent of

the atoms have zero momentum at absolute zero. (In an ideal gas

this would have been 100%.)

This subject took another tum in 1995, when experimenters in

the US were able to produce a Bose-Einstein condensate for

Rubidium atoms. In this case, the density was low enough that

Einstein's original ideas, with small modifications, could be

applied [4]. This is now a very active field of experimental

physics. Nowadays, a beam of atoms in the same quantum state

is called an 'atom laser' and various ingenious schemes for producing and utilising such beams are being invented. This is

expected to give rise to extremely accurate measurements of

time and other physical quantities.

Statistical physics was certainly Einstein's early love. He had

written papers on the statistical basis of thermodynamics even

before his relativity papers - unfortunately, they mainly rediscovered what Gibbs had already just done. His discussions of

Brownian motion, of photons, of critical opalescence, are all

gems of statistical thinking. And his single paper on condensation in a gas obeying Bose statistics should be counted amongst

these gems. Anyone else who did just this work would have

acquired a towering reputation. But Einstein the statistical

physicist was ultimately eclipsed by Einstein the relativist.

~$~<'

.........

of identical particles obey Bose

statistiCS and show condensation. Electrons, for example, show

Fermi statistics and behave in a

completely different way at low

temperatures. The same is true

of 3He, the rarer isotope of he-

lium!

Suggested Reading

[1] Resonance, VoI.l,No.2,p.92,

1996.

[2] N Mukunda, Resonance,

Vol.S, No.3, p.3S, 2000.

[3] R Srinivasan, Resonance,

Vo1.2, No.2, p.S, 1997.

[4] Rajaram Nityananda, Reso

nance, VoI.l, No.2, p.l11,

1996.

R Nityananda

Raman Research Institute

Sadashivanagar

Bangalore 560 080, India.

-RE-S-O-N-A-N-C-E--I--D-e-Ce-m-be--r--200--5----------~-------------------------------14-7

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