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30Jan 2014

Physicists can't find natural magnetic monopole so they make their own, in a Bose-Einstein sort of way.

Physicists can't find natural magnetic monopole so they make their own, in a Bose-Einstein sort of way.

   Interesting news from Amherst College and from Finland, off a letter in Nature. Physicists there said they twiddled and twaddled with a Bose-Einstein condensate, you know, that ultracold subatomic nanoKelvin mist whose parts all fall into one shared quantum state thingie deal, and got a part of it to make out like a magnetic monopole.

  This could be big news. Roundup of what's in already follows. But first permit me a story, an extended aside on a giant scoop that went pfffft.

  Way back in the summer of '75 I had urgent reason to track down and telephone Chester Gould, the man behind the Dick Tracy comic strips. I recalled that a character of his, the brilliant industrialist billionaire Diet Smith (from today's comics, think Tony Stark aka Iron Man), had invented a magnetic space coupe. He declared that "the nation that controls magnetism controls the universe." I wanted to use that axiom for a story I was frantically working on. I needed somehow to relax readers' brains with some non-physics stuff. Gould confirmed the motto and immediately ok'd use of a few cels from his strip for illus.

  I had been at the SF Chronicle for three years. A tipster had relayed word that a hush hush physics department colloquium was to convene at UC Berkeley. I went over, slipped in and sat down at the back of the theatre. Famous Lawrence Berkeley Lab experimentalist and Nobelist Luis Alvarez presided. One of the first things he said was something like "please do not call the press with what you are about to hear." A smile may have flitted across my face. He then turned the mike over to P. Buford Price, a star in the department. His team had put some lexan detectors under a balloon and lofted them 130,000 feet over Iowa so cosmic rays could smack them. Back in the lab, caustics had etched out the streaks of molecular havoc left in the plastic. One trail was so impressive the team could figure out only that its origin was either 1) a very heavy atomic nucleus going at near light speed, but other evidence seemed to rule that out or 2) It was a magnetic monopole with a charge, in magnetic strength, 137 times the electric charge on an electron. They were pretty confident of the latter. That would be fantastic, vindiction for speculation by demigod physicist Paul Dirac that such things may exist in nature and thus manifest broad symmetry between electric and magnetic fields. That is, just as isolated positive and negative electric charges exist, so there are isolated north and south magnetic poles or nodes. New vistas in physics would open.

    So as soon as the session adjourned I went down the steps to the scrum around the podium and said I am from the Chronicle and I have a few questions. The looks on Alvarez's and Price's and all the other physicists' faces was, um, priceless. Luis knew me. He'd known my wife since she was born. The Alvarezes gave us place settings for our wedding. He went after me as he would a wayward nephew about to betray and bring shame on the family. He pleaded. He didn't quite threaten but his face was stormy. This is unpublished, he said. It is tentative. Careers could be ruined by premature publicity. But I had taken good notes and the gathering by the mike did answer a few of my questions. I had the story! Nobody else did. I went back to the office and agonized. What would Walter Sullivan do? I got some counsel from my mentor the immortal (even then) David Perlman - who soon heard from Luis too - and reluctantly agreed to wait till the Berkeley lot were ready to publish. Good thing. That gave time to think of calling Chester Gould. And to work up such grandiloquence as "...scientists using them would be able to build inexpensive accelerators dwarfing in power those in existence today, allowing new and undreamed exploration of the nature of matter and energy" and, a few grafs down, "physics event of the century" and to further polish the apple, "if a monopole is finally proven to exist, its properties become inextricably linked to the basic foundations of the universe." By the way, reporters should keep their old clips in organized fashion - they are linked to the basic foundations of their personal universes.

   On August 14, 1975, on the eve of presentation at a cosmic ray conference in Germany and publication in Physical Review Letters, the story went front page. It jumped to half a full page inside including a boxed glossary of such arcane physics words as proton and magnetic field. It had loads of ifs and other qualifications but was plenty exciting. Then, slowly, the news fell apart. Reasonable arguments arose that the detector was, in fact, wounded by a heavy but ordinary atomic nucleus cosmic ray. Alvarez, who had worked so hard to protect Price from me, wrote one alternative up. Three years later the team withdrew most of its original conclusions. Lead author Price's career did just fine. He served as department chair, has played a critical role in neutrino detection, and has won medals. The National Academy elected him to its membership.

   As I was saying before misty nostalgia swept me up,there is new news on a synthetic magnetic monopole. It is not the fundamental and primeval sort that Dirac imagined. It is not a particle but a collective filamentous property of the magnetic alignments in a Rubidium Bose-Einstein Condensate that simulates the fields around a true monopole. I do not pretend to get that verbiage either and I wrote it. They have pictures, so it must be real. The term "Dirac monopole" is applied to it and it may thus act in ways that opens new doors in physics.


  • LiveScience - Tia Ghose: Bizarre Magnetic Particle Revealed in Ultra-Cold Lab Experiment ; Good way here to emphasize that this is a synthetic particle. She says it "mimics" a natural one, should it exist, and "behaves just as English physicist Paul Dirac predicted it would in 1931." 
  • Nature News - Elizabeth Gibney: Quantum cloud simulates magnetic monopole ;  Gibney's account is not digestible with just one chew, but says clearly that the pattern of things in the condensate are merely analogous to a real monopole's magnetic field. They are collections of individual 'vortices' of magnetic spin. Oh. Just when it gets really opaque she clarifies the degree to which this is mimicry but not the real deal. "The north pole that the team created is not magnetic in any conventional sense: a compass needle would not point to it." What a disappointment that is. But, she reports, this is just one example of 'quantum simulation, ' a hot field in physics that allows testing behavior of systems that are otherwise impossible or really hard to create in the lab.
  • BBC - James Morgan: Elusive magnetic 'monopole' seen in quantum system; Not nearly as deep a dive into the physics as Gibney took at Nature (whose news crew operates separate from the editors who put these technical papers on other pages). His readership (eg editors) wouldn't tolerate that. But Morgan does a fine job of dancing around fine points, of not saying it actually IS a magnetic monopole of the natural sort that Dirac supposed, and assuring that it may lead... somewhere.
  • Ars Technica - Matthew Francis: Bose-Einstein condensates used to emulate exotic magnetic monopole ; Another good way to say this isn't real but it is the next best, and only available, thing. ""Rather than searching for a monopole" the team took advantage of the fact that "quantum physics can allow one physical system to behave exactly like another." He further compares the BEC set-up to an analog computer in which electric circuits behave exactly like complex physical systems. Another good touch: Francis does not just refer to Dirac but calls him "the very strange physicist Paul Dirac" and links to a book that expands on that idea.
  • Business Insider - Andy Kiersz: Physicists Finally Made The One-Poled Magnet They've Been Missing For 80 Years ; Nice job walking through the basics of magnets. But it is not clearly explained here whether the simulated magnetic field lines are actual magnetic fields lines or not. But they are lined up in the aptly put "hedgehod configuration." He also embeds a video explainer provided by Finland's Aalto University.
  • Daily Mail (UK) Ellie ZolfagharifardScientists create a ONE-poled magnet - and it could unlock the secrets surrounding the birth of the universe; Ah, the Mail. Ms. Z starts off describing regular magnets and takes readers along as one gets cut into smaller and smaller halves without ever isolating separate N and S poles. Fine. Then she writes that why one never gets isolated poles this way "is a mystery, because scientists believe that a magnetic monopole - a magnet with just one pole - should exist to explain fundamental physics." Hmmm. First, scientists do know why splitting regular magnets again and again does not yield isolated poles. Second, far as I know Dirac only said that such things could exist - are not forbidden - not 'should.' Except perhaps in the sense of that old bromide - anything that CAN exist DOES exist. Which may not be true y'know. But the Mail does, as usual, have fine illus and the bulk of the story is well within the pale. The back-up to that "birth of the universe" in the hed appears to be reference to monopoles as fuel for a Grand Unified Theory of all of physics.

*UPDATES: Additional stories


Grist for the Mill: Aalto University Press Release ; Nature abstract.


Good story, Charlie.

Great story, Charlie. I love that stuff. I don't care how much the media landscape has changed--scoops, and near-scoops, and scoops that fall apart are still fun.

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