Behold a piece of art that could only be created in zero gravity

What do you do if you're a physicist and want to get experiments done in microgravity, but can't drum up the cash to go to space? You use magnets to both get results and make a picture that looks like it came out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

There's a limited amount of room out there on the International Space Station, and so there are only so many experiments that can be done there. This is unfortunate, because scientists have found that some interesting things happen in microgravity. One of them is the apparent self-organization of liquids and solids into something that looks like a bow on a Christmas packet going through a wormhole.

In regular gravity, when you put solids and liquids together, the most dense stuff sinks to the bottom of the container. Gravity pulls on all of it, and the dense material shoulders the lighter material aside to form a layer at the bottom. In microgravity, density doesn't really matter. The solid (in this case particles of bismuth and bismuth spheres) will just float around in the liquid. When the entire container is vibrated the whole thing self-organizes into a sort of flying knot of bismuth particles.

This picture was not taken in space. How did they get the particles to act like it was? Using powerful magnets, researchers simulated microgravity (magnets, by the way, have already been used to make a mouse levitate). We might not yet be to the point where we can make artificial gravity, but it seems that we can make artificial space.

Image: R. J. A. Hill/University of Nottingham/PRL

Via Physical Review Letters.