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Quantum tornado provides gateway to understanding black holes

Scientists have for the first time created a giant quantum vortex to mimic a black hole in superfluid helium that has allowed them to see in greater detail how analogue black holes behave and interact with their surroundings.

Research led by the University of Nottingham, in collaboration with King’s College London and Newcastle University, have created a novel experimental platform: a quantum tornado. They have created a giant swirling vortex within superfluid helium that is chilled to the lowest possible temperatures. Through the observation of minute wave dynamics on the superfluid’s surface, the research team has shown that these quantum tornados mimic gravitational conditions near rotating black holes. The research has been published today in Nature.

Lead author of the paper, Dr Patrik Svancara from the School of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Nottingham explains: “Using superfluid helium has allowed us to study tiny surface waves in greater detail and accuracy than with our previous experiments in water. As the viscosity of superfluid helium is extremely small, we were able to meticulously investigate their interaction with the superfluid tornado and compare the findings with our own theoretical projections.”

The team constructed a bespoke cryogenic system capable of containing several litres of superfluid helium at temperatures lower than -271 °C. At this temperature liquid helium acquires unusual quantum properties. These properties typically hinder the formation of giant vortices in other quantum fluids like ultracold atomic gases or quantum fluids of light, this system demonstrates how the interface of superfluid helium acts as a stabilizing force for these objects.

Researchers uncovered intriguing parallels between the vortex flow and the gravitational influence of black holes on the surrounding spacetime. This achievement opens new avenues for simulations of finite-temperature quantum field theories within the complex realm of curved spacetimes.

This groundbreaking research is funded by a £5 million grant from the Science Technology Facilities Council, distributed among teams at seven leading UK institutions, including the University of Nottingham, Newcastle University and King’s College London. The project has also been supported by both the UKRI Network grant on Quantum Simulators for Fundamental Physics and the Leverhulme Research Leaders Fellowship held by Professor Silke Weinfurtner.

The culmination of this research will be celebrated and creatively explored in an ambi exhibition titled Cosmic Titans at the Djanogly Gallery, Lakeside Arts, The University of Nottingham, from 25 January to 27 April 2025 (and touring to venues in the UK and overseas). The exhibition will comprise newly commissioned sculptures, installations, and immersive art works by leading artists including Conrad Shawcross RA that result from a series of innovative collaborations between artists and scientists facilitated by the ARTlab Nottingham. The exhibition will marry creative and theoretical inquiries into black holes and the birth of our Universe.”

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