|| By Dan Sadowsky
Photos by Lisa Currier
Once the atoms are released into the container,
and only when the tables two laser beams are correctly directed,
tuned, and angled, seven rays hit the atoms simultaneously and slow them
down by a factor of 20,000. Creating this kind of optical molasses
to trap atoms is the latest craze among physicists. Twice in the last
four years, including this past October, the Royal Swedish Academy of
Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in physics to researchers whose work
relates to atom trappingan unusual coincidence that exemplifies
the fields growing popularity and importance.
The challenge of Reeds atom trap lies in its complexity and sensitivity.
To work, all of the tabletop elements must be precisely alignedan
unnoticed nudge of any one piece can require rebuilding the entire arrayand
its bevy of electronics, which range from oscilloscopes to function generators
tobeam controllers, must be accurately tuned.
spent hundreds of hours deconstructing, reassembling, and tweaking the
device. Her advisers had hoped for such devotion when they awarded Smith
the coveted thesis topic. Yet they are quick to add that she hardly fits
the stereotype of a shy, closeted research scientist. Her extracurricular
interests include art, music, and theater, and to pay her way through
school she tended bar and waited tables at a downtown Portland nightclub.
In fact, Smith hadnt contemplated a future in any laboratory science
when she enrolled in Reed in 1996. At the time, she planned to concentrate
in mathematics or art. But after two yearlong physics classes that demonstrated
the fields practical application of math, she joined the growing
number of students at Reed who choose physics as their major. I
like explaining physical phenomena with mathematical equations,
she says now. Its kind of like a different language.
After taking a year off following her sophomore year to earn money for
tuition, Smith enrolled in advanced laboratory, a requisite for junior
physics majors in which students conduct various lab experiments on contemporary
topics. In that class Smith worked on a small yet crucial facet of the
traphow to use absorption spectroscopy to find the frequency of
rubidiumand was hooked. An added appeal, she admitted, was the chance
to solve a riddle that had befuddled four previous undergrads.
Nine months later she had gotten the trap to work, and now, after working
outside the lab for a year, hopes to return to school to earn an advanced
degree in physics and eventually pursue a vocation in the field. Id
like to do research, she says. Theres just something
satisfying about working on a project and doing it all day.
Her diligence in solving the atom trap did not go un-noticed. At years
end, Smith, like other physics majors, presented her thesis to peers,
professors, and other community members as part of a weekly seminar. Most
students who give presentations, Essick says, receive a polite round of
applause. But Smiths presentation, he recalls, was met with sustained
cheers. It was almost a standing ovation.
Dan Sadowsky is a
freelance writer. This is his first article for Reed.