Kali Wilson

The Turbulence of a Tiny Cloud of Atoms

By Stacy Kish on August 4, 2010

Fellow: Kali Wilson
Hometown: Morgantown, WV
Undergrad: Wellesley College
Graduate school: University of Arizona
Photo Credit: Zach Newman
Keywords: Department of Energy, Office of Science, Graduate Fellow program, Bose-Einstein Condensation, Turbulence

Growing up in West Virginia, Kali Wilson’s fascination with physics began at an early age. “I am sure the fact that my dad is a physicist helped,” she admits.

Wilson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona and a DOE Office of Science Graduate Fellow. She is working on understanding phase transitions and turbulence using Bose-Einstein Condensates (BECs). She explains, “A Bose-Einstein Condensate is really a cloud of atoms that have been cooled to 50 nanoKelvin.” To be clear, zero Kelvin is absolute zero where nothing moves. 50 nanoKelvin is a mere 10-9 above absolute zero. At this low temperature the atoms behave more like one collective entity than individual atoms.

At these inhospitable temperatures, the BEC behaves like a superfluid. “This means there is pretty much no resistance to flow,” continues Wilson. This property was first observed in liquid helium. In their research, Wilson and her colleagues use lasers and magnetic fields to perturb the BEC and watch the subsequent dynamics. “This approach allows us to learn more about turbulence in a quantum mechanical system,” explains Wilson.

“Because our system is a dilute gas, the interactions between the atoms are relatively simple,” she explains. “We can compare our experimental results with collaborators who are simulating the same processes using computer models based on microscopic theory.”

Wilson is probing the boundary between quantum mechanics and classical mechanics to increase the body of knowledge about superfluids. “Our studies of superfluid dynamics in BECs have the potential to help us understand the dynamics of more complicated systems,” she said.

Wilson admits, “This fellowship is an amazing resource that opens up a lot of possibilities for me in the future.”

Stacy Kish is a Science Writer with the Office of Science.