February 13, 2019

$1M award from Keck Foundation supports quantum matter, string theory research at Purdue

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A team of Purdue University researchers has been awarded a $1 million W.M. Keck Foundation grant to experimentally test an early prediction originated from string theory: An analog of space and time can emerge from the collective behavior of a system composed of strongly interacting quantum particles.

This idea has been debated among physicists, philosophers and other scientists for decades, but testing it requires equipment that doesn’t yet exist.

“Testing this idea of an emergent space-time and gravity demands a highly accessible, strongly coupled quantum material that provides complete spatiotemporal control of relevant system parameters to induce and detect collective dynamics with high precision,” said Chen-Lung Hung, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Purdue, who will lead the research team. “Ultracold atoms trapped in an optical lattice formed by intersecting laser beams are the most promising candidates, because that allows us to control almost all parameters, including atomic interaction, mobility, chemical potential and temperature to carry out the test.”

Hung will work in collaboration with Purdue physics and astronomy professors Sergei Khlebnikov, Luis Martin Kruczenski and Qi Zhou to create a comprehensive test for many phenomena discussed in the so-called AdS/CFT correspondence, a large area of research in string theory and an example of duality (where different mathematical theories describe the same physics). Ultimately, the researchers hope to find out whether collective dynamics in a strongly coupled quantum material can be described by a theory of gravity.

Zhou studies theory of many-body phenomena in quantum gases, and Hung has been developing a quantum gas system with the potential to perform the proposed experiment since 2016. Kruczenski and Khlebnikov research string theory and its application to quantum matter. They will combine their theoretical and experimental skills to produce a novel experimental testing ground.

“Upon experimental verification, we will be able to see, in a laboratory, the emergence of new local spatial dimensions and related gravity phenomena. This could reshape our understanding of space, time and dimensionality,” Hung said. “We hope our results will uncover new universal properties of strongly coupled systems and influence various disciplines, such as high-energy physics, gravitational physics and material sciences.”

The researchers believe this award from the Keck Foundation grant will help close the gap between physics theory and experimental proof that has remained agape for decades.

Based in Los Angeles, the W.M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W.M. Keck, founder of Superior Oil Co. The foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering and undergraduate education. More information is available at http://www.wmkeck.org

Writer: Kayla Zacharias, 765-494-9318, kzachar@purdue.edu

Sources: Chen-Lung Hung, 765-496-0419, clhung@purdue.edu 

Note to Journalists: For a copy of the paper, please contact Kayla Zacharias, Purdue News Service, kzachar@purdue.edu.

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