Like Newton, Nobel physicist uses an Apple
- By Susan M. Menke
- Oct 27, 1997
Phillips, a National Institute of Standards and Technology physicist and NIST fellow,
controlled his now historic atom-cooling experiments with National Instruments Corp.'s
LabView package running on an Apple Macintosh.
A second Mac handled the image processing of the results.
Phillips' LabView programforced several yellow laser beams to intersect, trapping
individual sodium atoms inside a cagelike optical lattice of laser interference patterns.
The atoms trapped by the criss-crossing beams gave up their energy and cooled until
their motions could be studied. The Phillips group found that the optical lattice
diffracted laser light just as crystals diffract X-rays. The group used this effect,
called Bragg scattering, to observe how the trapped atoms slowed down inside their cages.
One such atom-cooling experiment might last a year, recalled NIST staff physicist
Steven Rolston, who works with Phillips.
Rolston said the reason for the humble presence of the Motorola 68030-based Macs in the
midst of all the high-tech laser instrumentation was historical.
"We started out with Macs, and it was easier to stay with them," he said.
Phillips' group also has experimented with colliding cold atoms under laser radiation.
The atoms clumped together into giant, short-lived molecules.
LabView, a graphical laboratory program from National Instruments of Austin, Texas,
runs on Macs, PCs and Unix platforms. Its user interface simulates the controls of an
actual or virtual lab instrument. A virtual instrument acquires data from sources such as
The researcher also must program the proper connections using LabView's graphical G
language, connecting wires, controls and other components just as in an actual equipment
setup. Then LabView's interface serves as the dashboard of the experiment.
After getting his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Phillips
came to NIST's Electricity Division in 1978. There he began to experiment with slowing
down beams of neutral atoms by applying radiation pressure from a laser. As the atoms'
vibration slowed, they grew cooler.
Two years ago, NIST announced that its scientists had created the first so-called
Bose-Einstein condensate of atoms that had been slowed down enough to merge into a single
quantum state. The temperature of the condensate--the coldest recorded on Earth until
then--was only about 20 billionths of a degree above absolute zero.
Eventually, Rolston said, the atom-cooling research could produce advanced frequency
standards, which in turn would lead to more accurate atomic clocks and possibly to
ultra-miniaturized electronic circuit designs.
Phillips, who was named to the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year, will
share the $1 million Nobel physics prize with Steven Chu of Stanford University and Claude
Cohen-Tannoudji of the College de France.