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Extreme Impersonations

Frigid atomic clouds mimic neutron stars, exotic superconductors, and the newborn universe

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5:58pm, September 11, 2004

Extreme physical conditions have a way of bringing out the strangest behaviors that nature can muster. Just ask physicist John E. Thomas. Two years ago, he and his colleagues at Duke University in Durham, N.C., were working with intense lasers in a high-vacuum chamber at temperatures next to absolute zero. They were manipulating tiny clouds of lithium gas. When the scientists turned off the lasers, peculiar things began to happen. At first, the microscopic puff of lithium billowed out of the spot where the lasers had held it. But then, instead of expanding evenly in all directions, as any normal gas would, the lithium cloud morphed into a pancake.

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