New Nobel winner
to share insights
on ultracool atoms

By Helen Altonn

If you put a lid over a cup of coffee to contain the steam and keep it warm longer, you're actually using the kind of physics last year's Nobel Prize winners used to achieve an extreme state of matter.

"Except we use it to get down to a couple hundred billionths of a degree of absolute zero ... the lowest temperature one can get," says Carl E. Wieman, one of three scientists who won the prize.

The University of Colorado professor of physics will present a public lecture at 7 p.m. Monday in the University of Hawaii Art Building auditorium as part of the Arts & Sciences Nobel Laureate Lecture Series.

His wife, the former Sarah Gilbert, grew up in Kailua and attended UH. Her sister, Sharon Gilbert, lives on the Big Island.

Also an award-winning scientist, Sarah Gilbert does research related to the tele- communications industry at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. She will give a lecture on her work to the physics department.

Sharing the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics were Wieman, Eric A. Cornell of the National Institute of Standards and Wolfgang Ketterle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As described by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, they succeeded in causing atoms to "sing in unison," thus discovering a new state of matter called the Bose-Einstein condensation.

Wieman, in a telephone interview, said he will present a "virtual experiment" during his lecture to show how he visualizes atoms flying around and getting slower and slower as they are cooled with particles of light bounced on them.

Albert Einstein and Indian physicist Satyendra Bose predicted in 1924 that atoms cooled to a very low temperature would behave the same way and merge into controlled matter, but it was never demonstrated before the Nobel Prize work.

The physicists cooled the atoms with laser light, then put them in a "magnetic trap" where they slowly moved around without touching anything hot, Wieman said, adding that it's "like making the world's best thermos bottle."

They figured out a way to make things colder in the "thermos bottle" by letting atoms with the most energy escape from the magnetic field, just as steam carries energy from a coffee cup, so the other atoms got colder and colder, he said.

"If you looked with a giant magnifying glass, temperature is just motion of an atom," he explained. "As they (atoms) get colder and colder, they are moving slower and slower. Zero (minus 460 degrees) corresponds to where atoms just stop."

Nowhere in nature is it colder than 3 degrees above absolute zero because of energy left over from the big bang, he said.

"So we were able to get much colder than nature ever can. ... We like to claim our lab is the coldest spot in the universe," he joked.

Wieman said the new material is "very curious material that behaves totally different from anything anybody ever had before. It sort of brings strange laws of quantum physics up from a tiny submicroscopic level to big enough to see and manipulate."

He said the atoms in the Bose-Einstein condensation behave like particles in laser light, which are easier to control than normal light because they're "clones of each other."

People are working on ways to use the new physics to build better atomic clocks and interferometers for more precise measurements, Wieman said.

He said one well-funded researcher is trying to make instruments to measure tiny changes in gravitational fields.

"If you want to know if there is oil beneath the ground or a tunnel beneath the ground, or Osama bin Laden, you could fly one of these devices across the country and see some gravitational field that is different."

That is just one example of how the new material might be applied, he said, predicting scientists in the future are "going to discover new things we haven't even thought of that you can do with this stuff."

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