The second half of the NOVA special on “Absolute Zero” aired last night. Like the first installment, it was very well done, avoiding most of the traps of modern pop-science television. There were some mysterious shots of amusement park rides when they started talking about quantum mechanics, and I’m not sure why, but they kept the “re-enactments” to a minimum, and didn’t overdo the CGI.
They also deserve special mention for not insulting the viewers’ intelligence with constant recaps.
As you can guess from the title, this part of the story covered the history of attempts to reach ever-lower temperatures. The first half-hour was spent on the race between James Dewar and Heike Kammerlingh Onnes to liquify helium, then there were 15-20 minutes on the race for Bose-Einstein Condensation, closing with a few minutes of cool things you can do with BEC.
Unsurprisingly, I was happier with the older material than with the BEC section– I know the BEC stuff already, and it’s much easier for me to spot elisions and hand-waves there. Stepping back a bit, I think the overall presentation was very good, and it was particularly nice to see Dan Kleppner get his due. I was disappointed by a few things, though.
For one thing, I was a little disappointed to not see any of the 1997 Nobel laureates for laser cooling. This is partly just a personal parochial interest– I worked for Bill Phillips– but they really didn’t explain laser cooling much at all, and I thought it could’ve used more time. I understand why they did it, because taking time out to discuss laser cooling would’ve broken the symmetry between the Onnes-Dewar race and the Cornell/Wieman- Ketterle race, but I think they missed and opportunity here.
Spending more time on laser cooling also would’ve left less time for applications, which might not have been a Bad Thing. They only really talked about two applications of BEC– Seth Lloyd and Peter Shor talked about quantum computing in a way that will make Dave Bacon and Scott Aaronson thorw things at the tv, and Lene Hau talked about “slow light.”
I really could’ve done without the “slow light” bit. It’s one of the most overhyped results in the entire field, but more importantly, it doesn’t even require cold atoms, let alone a BEC. Dima Budker and Misha Lukin have done “slow light” experiments using room-temperature vapor cells.
Hau was the only woman to appear in the science segments (IIRC), but I think they would’ve done much better to replace her with Deborah Jin of JILA, who has done great things with degenerate Fermi systems. Jin’s experiments are not only more immediately practical than “slow light”– they provide some information about the physics of superfluidity and superconductivity– but they also actually require cold atoms.
The quantum computing bit was fairly content-less, and relied on the “massive parallelism” handwave that drives blogdom’s quantum information types up the wall. It could easily have been left out entirely, in favor of spending a little more time on other aspects of the science.
(Also, Seth Lloyd’s hair…. Dude. Just… dude.)
(While I’m commenting on superficial fashion issues, Dan Kleppner’s vest was sort of an odd decision, making him look like he didnt have any arms in a few shots. On the flip side, they did an excellent job of shooting Eric Cornell in such a way as to hide the fact that he really is missing an arm.)
All in all, it was a very good program. The historical stuff was great, and while I have some quibbles with the more modern material, I doubt there’s any treatment of that end of the story that I would find completely satisfactory. It was an excellent introduction to the general subject, and provides some hints of the ways in which ultra-low-energy physics can be every bit as interesting as the high-energy stuff.