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Stanford Report, October 10, 2001

Stanford's Nobel connection continues


Two of the three Nobel Prize winners in physics announced Tuesday have Stanford connections. Eric A. Cornell, a senior scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and professor adjoint at the University of Colorado-Boulder, received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Stanford in 1985. He also is the son of Professor (Research) C. Allin Cornell in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who describes Eric as “a terrific kid, a great father, with a great sense of humor.” The elder Cornell credits a high school physics teacher with lighting his son’s scientific talent and says he is “extremely proud of Eric, as I am of my other four kids. This one is, of course, on the top of the pile today.”

Eric Cornell shared the prize with Wolfgang Ketterle, a physics professor at MIT, and Carl E. Wieman, a physics professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Wieman received his doctorate from Stanford in 1977 with a dissertation titled “Polarization Spectroscopy and the Measurement of the Lamb Shift in the Ground State of Hydrogen.” His thesis adviser was Professor Theo Hänsch, now of the Max Planck Institute. On his thesis committee were Arthur L. Schawlow, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1981 and died in 1999, and Robert L. Byer, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor and chair of the Department of Applied Physics.

Cornell and Wieman also are both with JILA, formerly called the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics. They and Ketterle share the prize for creating Bose-Einstein condensation using laser cooling and evaporation techniques. This work was made possible by technology enabling laser light to cool and trap atoms that was developed by another Stanford laureate, Professor Steven Chu (Physics, 1997), with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji of the Collège de France and École Normale Supérieure and William Phillips of NIST. Cornell, Ketterle and Wieman first captured and laser cooled atoms in a combined magnetic and optical trap, further laser cooled them in optical molasses, and then captured the atoms in a purely magnetic trap. Once in this trap, they evaporatively cooled this gas of atoms to a hundred billionths of a degree above absolute zero and at high enough density so that the atoms “condensed” into quantum state where they assumed exactly the same physical properties – the same position,the same velocity and the same energy.