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Nobel winner Chu discusses 'optical molasses' research

Humility was the buzz word in the Wilson School yesterday as 1997 Physics Nobel Laureate Stephen Chu delivered the fifth annual Albert Einstein Memorial Lecture entitled "Laser Cooling and Trapping of Atoms and Biomolecules."

"Many Nobel Laureates' greatest strength is humility," said Jack O'Leary, Chairman of the Management Services Council. Chu demonstrated this when he ranked himself below such giants as Einstein and Newton.


However, the Stanford professor may be underestimating himself.

Through his long and involved research, Chu has created "optical molasses," precisely aligning laser beams that slow down and trap the atoms. Chu's experiments have paved the way for more in-depth findings by him and other physicists.

He compared the process of slowing down the atoms, which are normally "screaming along at the speed of an F-16," to dropping a pearl into Prell shampoo. The consistency of the shampoo will suspend the pearl for an instant before gravity forces it to the bottom.

College escapades

Chu said he relied on his college escapades at the University of Rochester to facilitate his research. Struggling to determine how to trap atoms, he recalled his experiences at the Bungalow, a local tavern he frequented with his peers "for beer and pizza, but mostly beer."

He recalled how some people "trying to recover from their excursion (at the Bungalow) usually wound up in the gutter, not on the top of the car."

With this image in mind, he was finally able to locate and trap the atoms, which like "these people placed themselves in regions of lower energy."


His research has spawned significant applications, including an atomic clock ten times more accurate than the standard. If started 15 billion years ago, the clock would be off by only four minutes today.

Employing the new ability to cool and slow atoms, Chu was able to accurately measure and chart gravity, noting that a "change in position of 300 microns yields a change in gravity."

Despite his enormous success and focused research, Chu described his path as a "random walk."

"I didn't know where (my research) was going to lead," he said. "I experienced a lot of accidental discoveries."

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Chu encouraged youth and students to "follow their nose." Only in "keeping their nose to the ground where the scent is strongest" will they be able to make such discoveries.

"(I) look for the acceleration due to gravity and find out what killed the dinosaurs," he explained, laughing modestly, referring to his discovery of the crash site of the meteorite that scientists believe killed the dinosaurs.