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Nobel Prize winner will explain how Einstein's theories still apply today.

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

Bill Phillips works in a world where speeding atoms are slowed to a crawl using "optical molasses," where temperatures drop to the tiniest fraction of a degree above absolute zero and where clocks aren't off by a second over 80 million years.

A Nobel Prize winner in physics, Phillips will be in Eugene tonight to give a public talk on his research and how the theories laid out by Albert Einstein more than a hundred years ago still guide research today.

Phillips is a fellow at the Joint Quantum Institute at the National Institute for Standards and Technology and at the University of Maryland. He shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics for his work trapping and cooling atoms using laser light.

Phillips will present a multimedia lecture aimed at a general audience, covering his own work and other recent discoveries and their relation to some of Einstein's theories.

Phillips and his colleagues came up with a way to use lasers to shoot photons at atoms to slow them down and then hold them in a magnetic field. Using such techniques, atoms that typically move at 4,000 kilometers an hour (almost 2,500 mph) have been slowed to just two centimeters a second, or less than an inch per second.

That kind of slowing lowers the temperature of the atoms to about a billionth of a degree above absolute zero, which is about 470 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Normal matter freezes into a solid at such temperatures, but the technique developed by Phillips and others allows atoms to remain in a gas state where they can be more easily measured and observed.

UO physics professor Michael Raymer said that when the discoveries were announced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were seen mostly as an intriguing curiosity. But since then the research has pointed to more practical use in super-accurate clocks that could improve a variety of industrial and commercial products, including global positioning satellites.

"All of physics is driven by better and better measurements," Raymer said. "So we're always pushing the boundaries of how well we can measure something."

The work also led to the first creation by another research team of what is known as a Bose-Einstein condensate, a new and strange state of matter in which atoms are slowed and cooled so much that they effectively merge into a single entity that is much larger than any individual atom. That work led to its own Nobel Prize.

Phillips' work also led to the latest generation of atomic clocks, further improving the accuracy of these crucial and ultraprecise instruments. Atomic clocks provide the international standard for timekeeping, and are essential in many high-tech industries as well as in commercial applications such as the GPS system.

Graham Kribs, a professor of theoretical physics at the UO, organized Phillips' visit. Phillips also will appear at a colloquium for physics students and faculty.

Kribs said the physics department is trying to bring more speakers to campus to help explain to average listeners some of the research that's being done at the UO and other places.

"Given the cost and expense of science, having public talks to explain what research is going on is a good thing," he said.


Nobel Prize winner Bill Phillips offers free talk at UO

Topic: "Time, Einstein and the Coolest Stuff of the Universe"

When/where: Today, 7:30 p.m., Room 150, Columbia Hall, UO campus
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Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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