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Nobel Prize
ASYMMETRIC CATALYSIS WINS
[C&EN, Oct. 15, 2001]
REGULATORS OF THE CELL CYCLE
[C&EN, Oct. 15, 2001]
COLD ATOMS ARE HOT, HOT, HOT
[C&EN, Oct. 15, 2001]
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Carl E. Wieman

Eric A. Cornell

Wolfgang Ketterle

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IN BRIEF:
DUTCH TREAT
E. W. (Bert) Meijer, an organic chemistry professor at Eindhoven University of Technology, is one of four winners of this year's NWO/Spinoza Prize, known as the "Dutch Nobel Prize." Each winner will receive approximately $1.4 million for research from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). Meijer's work concerns dendrimers and supramolecular polymers.

Meijer

PHOTO BY MICHAEL FREEMANTLE

 
 
 
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NEWS OF THE WEEK
NOBEL PRIZE
October 15, 2001
Volume 79, Number 42
CENEAR 79 42 p. 7
ISSN 0009-2347
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COLD ATOMS ARE HOT, HOT, HOT
Physics Nobel goes to discoverers of Bose-Einstein condensates

ELIZABETH WILSON

Nobel Prizes are frequently awarded to older scientists, after the significance of their work has had a chance to really sink in. But the creation, a little over five years ago, of an exotic form of matter known as the Bose-Einstein condensate has so rocked the physics world that the Nobel committee awarded this year's prize in physics to a group of relative youngsters.

7942NOTW3.phys1.tifxx
Cornell (left) and Wieman
COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO/GETTY IMAGES
Physics professor Carl E. Wieman, 50, at the University of Colorado, and physicist Eric A. Cornell, 39, at the National Institute of Standards & Technology, both in Boulder, and MIT physics professor Wolfgang Ketterle, 43, will share the cash prize of approximately $950,000. In 1995, Cornell and Wieman published the first paper on the creation of a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), containing 2,000 rubidium atoms. Later that year, Ketterle independently published another paper, reporting the creation of an even bigger BEC, using sodium atoms.

"They very richly deserve the honor," says Mark A. Edwards, associate physics professor at Georgia Southern University, and a BEC expert. Not only did they create the first condensates, he notes, but "these guys have stayed on the forefront of BEC research."

In 1925, Albert Einstein and Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose first hypothesized that gaseous atoms at nearly 0 K would collectively assume a single quantum state, their wave functions overlapping to form essentially a giant atom.

Scientists tried to confirm that prediction as early as the 1970s. But it wasn't until the mid-1990s that the right confluence of state-of-the-art laser trapping and cooling techniques occurred, allowing the prizewinners to bring collections of gaseous atoms down to 20 nanoKelvin--more than a million times colder than deep space.

Unlike other kinds of BECs that scientists had attempted to create, the gaseous condensates existed for at least a minute--a lifetime to an experimental physicist. "They were big, fat, and juicy; they were long-lived and easy to probe and control experimentally," Edwards says.

Ketterle
Since then, more than 2,000 papers have been published on BECs and dozens of labs are studying the phenomenon. Not only are BECs incredibly useful for learning about the fundamental properties of matter, they've also got many potential practical uses: in the exotic atomic laser, for example, which Ketterle has been pursuing, or in improved atomic clock accuracy or in quantum computers.

"I don't think either [Wieman or I] anticipated how many avenues would branch out from that main road," Cornell told reporters.

Jubilant university and lab officials proudly introduced their new stars at press conferences last Tuesday. The prizewinners graciously thanked and acknowledged their colleagues. They told of being rousted, happily, from their slumbers at ungodly hours to hear the news of their award: Wieman by his brother, who read about it on the Internet; Cornell by his former Ph.D. adviser, MIT physics professor David E. Pritchard, who woke him at 4 AM; and Ketterle, directly by a member of the Nobel committee.

Did they know at the time of discovery that their breakthroughs were potentially of Nobel caliber? "To be honest, yeah," Wieman said. "It was something a lot of people had been working on for a long time. When we first saw it, it was unlike most scientific work where you see a little hint, and you keep working and it gets a bit better. This just jumped right out at you--it was spectactularly clear it was there."

All three prizewinners declined to speculate on what they'd do with the money, saying that wasn't really their focus. Said Ketterle: "We do physics for excitement."

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