Two lecture rooms of the Sloane Physics Laboratory filled up on Friday afternoon as more than 330 people gathered to hear one man speak.
The crowd listened to 39-year-old Eric Cornell of Colorado University, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics, talk about the work that earned him the prize.
“[Cornell] clearly has his stuff together,” Laura Koo ’03 said. “I’m not really familiar with this aspect of physics, but I have a feeling this is going to be really big. He’s going to be in textbooks someday.”
Cornell’s talk was the 28th annual Hanan Rosenthal lecture, sponsored by the Department of Physics. The title of the lecture was “Bose-Einstein condensation: Science within a millionth of a degree of absolute zero,” the subject of Cornell’s Nobel Prize-winning experiment.
Due to the large turnout, an adjacent lecture room had to be opened to accommodate the audience overflow. The audience in the second room viewed the lecture via live video.
Cornell, American Carl Wieman and German Wolfgang Ketterle won the Nobel Prize in Physics this year for discovering a new state of matter, an ultra-cold gas, by using Bose-Einstein condensation.
“We wanted to achieve the original theory of Einstein [that predicted Bose-Einstein condensates],” Cornell said.
This ultra-cold gas was achieved by freezing alkali atoms through laser cooling to about 0.1 millionth of a degree above absolute zero. According to a statement by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited on CNN.com, Bose-Einstein condensation could allow high-precision measurements of tiny distances and objects such as cells. Such a discovery could make possible many new developments in biotechnology and in nanotechnology like microscopic computers, cellular machines, drugs targeting specific cells, and improved aircraft guidance, as well as further achievements in theoretical physics.
“A lot of interesting physics will come out of this [discovery],” Cornell said.
Cornell’s lecture was replete with colorful diagrams and everyday vernacular.
“The lecture was very enjoyable and understandable to even science non-experts,” said Evan Finch, an associate research scientist in physics.
At one point during the lecture, in a series of diagrams, Cornell described the nature of Bose-Einstein condensates.
“Bose-Einstein condensates are small and cold, thin but gelatinous — they wiggle and jiggle — and coherent — with laser-like properties — and mortal,” Cornell said.
Cornell also described the way in which he cooled the atoms to such low levels by using magnetic trapping and evaporative cooling in what he called a magnetic bowl. The atoms, as they cooled, would virtually stop moving and thereby be affected by the magnetic force of the bottom of the bowl, gathering all together at the bottom.
“Evaporative cooling is the hottest thing in cool, you get to the lowest temperatures with it,” Cornell said. “It’s also the oldest form of cooling known to humankind, like the steam from your coffee. You quickly find out that when you neglect to put the lid over your coffee, the temperature of your coffee goes down to something like absolute zero.”
The lecture was followed by a question and answer session. In response to one question regarding the study of physics, Cornell spoke about the difficulty of breadth versus specialization in physics.
“The hard thing about physics is that not all the questions are actually known,” Cornell said. “In biology, for example, all the questions are already out there, and it’s just a matter of finding the answers. My advice for you [who plan to pursue physics] is to start finding your taste.”