Nobel laureate in physics returns to UO to talk Einstein and light

Bill Phillips
Bill Phillips

Nobel Prize-winner Bill Phillips wants to show you that floating on air is not just an expression, and he’s got the Levitron to prove it.

Phillips, who won the 1997 Nobel in physics for his work trapping atoms with lasers, will make a return trip to the University of Oregon next week to levitate, demonstrate and generally elevate our understanding of science. And you most definitely don’t need to be a scientist to enjoy it.

Phillips will be on campus Tuesday, Feb. 10, to discuss “Time, Einstein and the Coolest Stuff in the Universe.” The free public talk will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Room 150, Columbia Hall.

In 2008 a packed house heard Phillips speak on the work of Albert Einstein and its application to modern-day technology. In his return visit, Phillips will provide some updates, put on some lively demonstrations and talk about things like atomic clocks and the use of lasers to cool atoms and hold them in place.

Oh, and levitation. One of his demos shows how electromagnetism can be used to suspend objects in midair. It doesn’t really have anything to do with time, Einstein or light, but it’s pretty cool.

The talk is tied to the International Year of Light initiative by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The UN declared 2015 the Year of Light to focus attention on light science and its application through light-based technologies.

Phillips is a fellow at the Joint Quantum Institute at the National Institute for Standards and Technology at the University of Maryland. He leads NIST’s Laser Cooling and Trapping Group, which has nothing to do with chilly, caged lasers but which does use lasers to ice down atoms.

And that’s useful because …?

Super-cold atoms can be used in a lot more than refreshing beverages. Besides helping scientists understand some of the fundamental principles of nature, they are also used in atomic clocks, which are essential in any number of industrial and commercial applications, from computers to machinery.

That GPS application on your phone or in your car, for example. Without super-accurate atomic clocks, the Global Positioning Satellites might put you a couple of counties over from where you are, if they could find you at all.

Phillips and his team have been able to slow atoms down by shooting photons from lasers at them and then trapping them in a magnetic field. That also has the effect of cooling them to about a billionth of a degree above absolute zero, or about 470 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

But instead of freezing, as pretty much anything else would do at that temperature, Phillips is able to keep the atoms in a gaseous state. Atoms like that can be used to make clocks that are accurate to within a second over 80 million years.

Take that, Timex.

—By Greg Bolt, Public Affairs Communications