Experts speak on science

The 1997 Nobel Laureate in Physics, William Phillips, will be visiting the College this week, highlighted by a lecture Thursday evening entitled “Time, Einstein, and the Coldest Stuff in the Universe.”

A Fellow of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Phillips received the Nobel Prize along with two others for his work on laser cooling.

By using lasers to contain atoms in a sort of magnetic and optical trap, they can be slowed down and cooled to incredibly low temperatures—less than one millionth of a degree above absolute zero. In his lecture on Thursday, which is accessible to a general audience and will be held in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall at 7 p.m., Phillips will discuss some of the practical applications of his work as well as the types of new scientific observations which laser cooling has made possible.

Professor of Physics and Chair of the Physics Department Kevin Jones has worked with Phillips at NIST at various times over past years. “He’s someone who loves talking about what he does,” Jones said. Jones explained that Phillips offered to come to Williams as part of a program run by the American Physical Society, and that an objective of the visit is to meet and talk with students.

Fortunately for Williams, arrangements were made for Phillips’s visit before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, as he is likely now receiving many invitations to speak around the country.

Besides the evening lecture on Thursday, Phillips will be going to three classes, one in chemistry and two in physics, and will also meet with all of the physics research students at Williams. Following Thursday’s lecture will be a reception, and Phillips will have lunch with students on Friday. Friday afternoon he will give the colloquium presentation, to be held in Thompson Physical Laboratory, room 214. This will be a more technical talk, also related to his work in laser cooling, entitled “Optical Lattices: Atomic Physics Meets Solid State”.

Phillips will explain some of the practical applications of laser cooling in his lecture Thursday, among them the ability to make more precise atomic clocks, important for coordinating the Global Positioning System and for use in high-speed communication networks. Jones explained that one of the limits on an atomic clock is how long it takes an atom to go through the clock, and this can be affected by either making the clock longer, which soon becomes impractical, or by slowing the atoms down. He predicted that the laser cooling technique would result in at least a 100-fold improvement.

Another consequence of Phillips’s work involves the observation of something called Bose-Einstein condensation. Jones explained the importance of this, saying that Bose-Einstein condensation is “something that had been predicted 70 years ago and that people have been researching for 20 years.” Its observation has only been made possible in the past few years due to the laser cooling technique.

Speaking of laser cooling, Jones noted “it’s not that hard to do,” explaining that the technique is now being used by many researchers who are “going on and doing other things with atoms.” In his own lab, Jones and Williams students are working to form what he referred to as “long-range molecules”, the atoms of which are very far apart by molecular standards.

“We can form molecules that are in states that are very hard to make any other way,” Jones said, explaining that physicists can extract some very useful information from these molecules. Williams students have had the opportunity to be involved in this work. Last summer, two students went to the NIST laboratories with Jones for about a month, and another student will be accompanying him there this summer. Jones will be beginning a special two-year leave this summer to work with Phillips and others at NIST.