“I’m really glad to be here-I’d like to talk to you about some very, very cold things today,” Nobel Prize winner Eric Cornell said to an audience of about 150 physics junkies, professors, community members and students at the start of his lecture about his experimental discovery of Bose-Einstein condensation, the coldest matter on earth, Thursday.
Cornell and his colleagues, Carl Wieman and Wolfgan Ketterle, won the Nobel Prize in 2001 for their discovery of Bose-Einstein condensation, BEC.
Cornell is a noted physics professor at CU-Boulder, working with Wieman as a physicist at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophyiscs, and was invited to speak based on his work in the field of physics.
Most simply put, BEC is gas that is cooled by lasers to extreme temperatures far colder than the freezing temperatures in the farthest depths of space. The collection of atoms that make up the gas, whose movement is almost completely stopped by the cooling process, form matter that Cornell said will advance the technological world with improvements to military and computer developments.
Throughout the night, Cornell cracked jokes and used anecdotes about Jell-O and coffee to make the advanced scientific content of his lecture “Stone Cold Physics,” understandable and accessible even to the non-physicist. His humorous presentation was part of the Galeener Lecture Series held every two to three years in honor of CSU physics professor Frank Galeener, who died in 1992.
“I normally give this talk to a room full of physicists,” Cornell said as he promised to keep the mathematical equations to a minimum. He kept his promise and used words like “fuzzy” to describe the matter and phrases that included “Box O’ Cold Atoms” and “New Teckology” to relay components of the complex experiment.
Research on the Bose-Einstein matter began with physicists Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Eistein in the early 1920s. Interest in the concept picked up and rapidly expanded in the 1980s with experiments by scientists at the Massachusets Institute of Technology and other universities.
Physicists use the Absolute Scale to measure extreme cold temperatures that exceed Fahrenheit or Celsius scale-limits. At Absolute Zero or negative 459 degrees Fahrenheit, there is no molecular movement-in other words, all atom movement is stopped.
While some have come close, within 1/10,000 of a degree above Absolute Zero, no scientist has achieved Absolute Zero. Cornell and his team beat the past when they reached one-billionth of a degree above Absolute zero and created the first sample of BEC in history.
Cornell said that the matter, held in an apparatus his team designed, was cooled using the energy from a laser and then followed by an evaporative cooling technique he compared to the science behind waiting for a cup of coffee to cool.
Cornell said that he and Weinman “borrowed” the laser cooling technique, the “hottest thing in cold in the 1980s,” from 1997 Nobel Prize winners Steven Chu, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William D. Phillips. It worked by shooting six laser beams at the atoms in the gas. The atoms absorbed the energy of the laser and cooled as their movement slowed by the force of the light.
Because the atoms were still not cold enough to become Bose-Einstein condensate, the scientists applied an evaporative cooling technique.
Throughout the day Thursday, Cornell interacted with every facet of the physics department including graduate students, undergraduates and a group of high school physics students.
He said that he and the students “shot the breeze” and talked about things “sometimes having to do with science, some having to do with careers.”
Graduate physics students Julie Keele and Shannon Woods said that everyone who sat with Cornell was a “little bit timid” and there were times where no one spoke.
When the anxiety levels subsided and conversation picked up, students drilled the world-renowned physicist about his work, his career and his winning the Nobel Prize.
“It was pretty remarkable to talk with someone that high up in the field,” said Dan Dugan, a graduate physics student. “As for winning the Nobel Prize, I’m nowhere near smart enough to get it-my plan is to enter the industry and get a job.”
CSU physics professors agreed that Cornell’s lecture and the one-on-one sessions reached out to students and the community and fulfilled the goals of the lecture series.
“I think our graduates and undergraduates really enjoyed talking with Cornell,” said Steve Lundeen, a physics professor. “In fact a lot of them told me after that they thought it was ‘awesome.'”
Sponsors agreed that the speaker was well chosen.
“I think it’s been phenomenal; the committee that has chosen the speakers over the years has done an excellent job in picking the speakers, and tonight is an example of that,” said Janet Galeener, widow of the late Frank Galeener.
“I believe that this is a wonderful way to honor my husband,” she said.
Senior Reporter Madeline Novey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.