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2001
quantum_mechanic_title  By Dan Sadowsky
Photos by Lisa Currier

Once the atoms are released into the container, and only when the table’s 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 trapping—an unusual coincidence that exemplifies the field’s growing popularity and importance.

The challenge of Reed’s atom trap lies in its complexity and sensitivity. To work, all of the tabletop elements must be precisely aligned—an unnoticed nudge of any one piece can require rebuilding the entire array—and its bevy of electronics, which range from oscilloscopes to function generators tobeam controllers, must be accurately tuned.

Kalista pictureSmith 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 hadn’t 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 field’s 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. “It’s 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 trap—how to use absorption spectroscopy to find the frequency of rubidium—and 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. “I’d like to do research,” she says. “There’s 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 year’s 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 Smith’s presentation, he recalls, was met with sustained cheers. “It was almost a standing ovation.” End of Article

Dan Sadowsky is a freelance writer. This is his first article for Reed.

Feb Header
Go to Page 1 Page two, you are here Link to Reed Mag  Home
2001