By Kenneth Freeman
‘Extreme’ is a relative word: an Antarctic -30°C may seem extremely cold to you or me, but it’s fairly standard for an emperor penguin. In the laboratory, extremes can be far more dramatic: we approach the absolute limits of physical properties like temperature, reaching levels that can’t easily be comprehended. At these farthest limits we can explore exciting science which broadens our understanding of the fundamental forces in nature and provides insight that can lead to new technologies.
There are lots of ways to take a physical object to the extreme: examples include extremes of temperature, extremes of size (very big or very small), and extremes of pressure. These three properties – temperature, size, and pressure – are quite familiar from our everyday lives. Hot and cold, big and small are simple enough; pressure may be less intuitive initially, but doesn’t require much thought to understand its effects.
In the sciences, we can consider lots of other extremes too: for example concentration, magnetic field and time (e.g. looking at incredibly fast processes). We can also combine these different extremes to create a multitude of extreme environments. Here we’ll look at the methods used to produce these conditions in the lab, and how they compare to the extremes we see in nature.