Strange things are happening inside a box on the International Space Station. Physicists are using the box—called the Cold Atom Lab—to generate a quantum state of matter that could help unlock a few secrets of the universe, LiveScience reports. Called Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs), the matter is basically a blob of millions of chilled atoms that defy classical physics. They also constitute a fifth form of matter after plasmas, solids, liquids, and gases. "We're getting to make BECs on a daily basis, for many hours a day," lead study author David Aveline tells Business Insider, adding that the work is "completely remote-controlled" from Earth. Why all the effort? Because on the space station, there's no Earth gravity to wreck the blob in fractions of a second.
Discovered at the University of Colorado in 1995, BECs allow scientists to analyze quantum effects on a bigger scale—in blobs rather than individual particles. PNAS reports that scientists have since witnessed solids flow through themselves, magnetic liquid droplets fall like rocks, and BECs blow up "like tiny supernovas." With any luck, the Cold Atom Lab will unveil more quantum secrets and help scientists forge a "theory of everything" for the whole cosmos, big and small. "In the past, our major insights into the inner workings of nature have come from particle accelerators and astronomical observatories," says study author Robert Thompson. "In the future, I believe precision measurements using cold atoms will play an increasingly important role." (Read more quantum physics stories.)