Physicists hit on mathematical description of superfluid dynamics

A 2001 photo from the space shuttle shows a phenomenon called von Karman vortices in clouds downwind from Rashiri Island in the northern Sea of Japan. The vortices are similar to those that form in superfluids. (Credit: NASA)

It has been 100 years since the discovery of superconductivity, a state achieved when mercury was cooled, with the help of liquid helium, to nearly the coldest temperature achievable to form a superfluid that provides no resistance to electrons as they flow through it.

During that century, scientists have struggled to find a precise mathematical explanation of why and how this strange fluid behaves as it does. Liquid helium-4 itself becomes a superfluid when cooled to within a few degrees of absolute zero on the Kelvin scale (minus 273 Celsius or minus 460 Fahrenheit), and the resulting lack of viscosity allows it to seem to defy gravity, flowing up and over the sides of a container.

Now a team led by a University of Washington physicist, using the most powerful supercomputer available for open science, has devised a theoretical framework that explains the real-time behavior of superfluids that are made of fermions — subatomic particles such as electrons, protons and neutrons that are basic building blocks of nature.

Such superfluids are found in neutron stars, which rotate between one and 1,000 times a second. These stars, also called pulsars, have 50 percent greater mass than the sun but are packed so densely that one can occupy an area only about the size of a city such as Seattle, said Aurel Bulgac, a UW physics professor and lead author of a paper in the June 10 edition of Science that details the work.

As a neutron star rotates, the superfluid on the surface behaves quite differently than a liquid would on the surface of Earth. As the rotational speed increases the fluid opens a series of small vortices. As the vortices assemble into triangular patterns, the triangles build a lattice structure within the superfluid.

“When you reach the correct speed, you’ll create one vortex in the middle,” Bulgac said. “And as you increase the speed, you will increase the number of vortices. But it always occurs in steps.”

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