How quantum physics helps to study distant planets

What can unite a specialist in quantum physics, geology and mathematics? Of course, the desire to solve the riddle of the universe! Scientists have found that observing the behavior of the oceans of the Earth will help to explore even the remote corners of the galaxy.

As we all know, science is full of surprises, and sometimes it brings together phenomena and concepts that at first glance have nothing in common. It would seem that there is a connection between a certain type of oceanic waves that controls the El Niño climate cycle and quantum materials, the distinguishing feature of which is their ability to conduct a current only by the surface part? Physicists, nevertheless, assure us that both these phenomena can be explained by the same mathematical principles.

How quantum physics affects the weather in the world

Brad Marston, a physicist at Brown University, and the principal author of the new study, tried to prove a very interesting theory. In his opinion, the use of topological principles can explain both the phenomenon of the fact that oceanic and atmospheric waves on the equator fall into a kind of “trap”, and that the physics of the condensed state (a huge section of physics that studies the behavior of complex systems and argues that evolution system as a whole can not be “divided” into the evolution of its individual parts) can be equally useful both for the Earth and for explaining phenomena on other planets and moons. In simple terms: the main goal of the work is to prove that the principles of quantum physics are equally valid for our planet and for other cosmic bodies.

But how to prove such a large-scale theory? For this, Marston teamed up with Pierre Delac, a specialist in the field of condensed matter physics, and also with geophysicist Antoine Venail. Scientists have applied the theory of condensed state to two types of gravitational waves, known as waves of Kelvin and Yanai, which propagate along seas and air around the equator of the Earth. These wave-like distortions, hundreds and thousands of kilometers in length, transmit the energy pulse east of the equator, which greatly influences El Niño, the system of fluctuations in the temperature of the surface waters of the Pacific Ocean, on which the weather conditions and precipitation depend. This is due to the interaction of several physical processes. Firstly, the force of gravity comes into opposition with buoyancy, which causes cooling / heating of air and water due to independent droplets. Secondly, the rotation of the Earth to the east creates the so-called Coriolis effect, which causes the fluids to move along the Earth’s surface in opposite directions, depending on the hemisphere.

From theory to … theory

To see how the effects interact with each other and form waves, Marston and his colleagues followed the same strategy as Taro Matsuno, a scientist at the University of Tokyo, who in 1966 predicted an equatorial “trap” for the waves. Here, quantum physics enters into the matter: scientists simplify the structure of the whole ocean and focus their attention on a narrow band, during which the Coriolis effect remains approximately constant. But they do not calculate all calculations for equatorial waves, but for those that are better suited for analysis. Physicists also switch to a simpler task to demonstrate that it contains a response to the original question, albeit implicitly.

Marston and his colleagues study waves not in ordinary space, but in the abstract space of all possible waves with different wavelengths and Coriolis effects. Equations for extremely long waves show two special mathematical points, where the amplitude of the wave varies greatly with its length. These points are called “mathematical holes”, and there are two of them, since the Earth has two hemispheres with oppositely directed Coriolis forces. As a result, as the researchers note in the pages of the Science portal, the hemispheres behave like two pieces of electrical insulating material. Just as the combination of two electrical insulating materials allows the current to flow along their surface, the union of the two hemispheres leads to the appearance of waves on their boundary – the equator, which decreases with increasing latitude. And, as in the case of the material, the waves are stable or, as physicists say, “topologically protected” by the features of the abstract space.

The Future: Quantum Physics in the Hands of Astronomers

What does astronomy have to do with it? According to Marston, the principle of action of these waves is the same for any rotating planet. Scientists have established that even if it is in the form of a donut, the situation will not change it. This system in theory can be applied to other cosmic phenomena, for example, disks of dust and gas around black holes, as well as to the atmospheres of Venus and Titan, on which equatorial waves were also recorded. Thus, in the hands of scientists is a powerful topological tool that will learn about the geophysics of the planet long before they send a probe or expedition mission.