The red lines represent the polarized light beams that change as they pass through the sphere.
University of St. Andrews)
Those who tend to get motion sick may want to refrain from imagining how fast 600 million revolutions per minute is.
Because that's exactly the rotational speed scientists at Scotland's University of St. Andrews achieved with a man-made microscopic sphere of calcium carbonate basically for the sole purpose of observing what would happen at such a speed. The results were published in Nature Communications on Wednesday.
For reference, 600 million revolutions per minute happens to be 500,000 times faster than a standard washing machine, and 300,000 times faster than a standard car engine.
The ultimate goal, put scientifically, was to test what happens when physical objects of millions of atoms -- not simply singular atoms or molecules -- are pushed to extreme, never-before-achieved conditions in situations bordering the boundaries between classic and quantum physics.
In this case, the microscopic sphere -- measuring four millionths of a meter in diameter -- was held in place within a vacuum with tiny pulses of laser light that were exploited, thanks to the concept of polarization, as the light passed through the object to exert torque.
The fast-moving sphere acted in essence like a miniature gyroscope, stabilizing around the axis of rotation and picking up speed until it hit a limit of 600 million revolutions per minute and appeared to vanish, said the BBC's Pallab Ghosh.
It's unclear to the scientists what happened to the object or why it hit that limit. The phenomenon may in fact be a previously unrecorded event, though the next step is to follow up on the findings and investigate the nature of the phenomenon to be certain.
"In addition to the exciting fundamental physics aspects, this experiment will allow us to probe the nature of friction in very small systems, which has relevance to the next generation of microscopic devices," professor Kishan Dholakia of the research team told the BBC. "And it's always good to hold a 'world record' -- even if for only a while."