|| By Dan Sadowsky
Photos by Lisa Currier
Kalista Smith 01 flips her 64-page
thesis to a photograph that shows a bright ball of light shining through
a container of transparent glass. The photo captures a rare and long-awaited
phenomenon: normally zippy rubidium atoms frozen in the crosshairs of
seven laser beams.
In slowing to a mere crawl atoms that typically dart and swirl around
a room at 450 miles per hour, the 23-year-old Smith not only proved the
functionality of Reeds magneto-optical trap, she also replicated
an experiment that won a trio of physicists the Nobel Prize four years
earlier. Whats more, she went a step beyond the work of four preceding
Reed College physics majorsall of whom penned their theses on various
elements and theoretical foundations of the trap, but none of whom actually
got it to work.
Every student who took it on was hoping theyd be the one,
says physics professor John Essick, who jointly advised Smith as well
as the previous atom-trapping aspirants.
That Smith succeeded speaks to her fearlessness and perseverance,
says visiting physics professor Morgan Mitchell, who also advised Smith.
She was undaunted by the number of different things she needed to
tackle in order for it to work, he says. Moving beyond previous
efforts, he adds, required getting to know intimately every single
part of an extremely complex apparatus.
Smith attained that level of intimacy by working doggedly throughout her
senior year in a darkened second-floor laboratory to try to demonstrate
the traps functionality. She took satisfaction from the daily grind
of lab work and a challenge that blended her relatively new interests
in the fields of quantum mechanics, optics, and electrodynamics. Once
I saw this table, says the Salt Lake City native, sizing up the
array of gadgets and gizmos that make up the trap, I said, Wow,
I really want to work with all that stuff.
atom traps are complicated devices. They use a weak magnetic field and
circularly polarized light to slow the movement of atoms to a virtual
halt, allowing researchers to study them in new ways. Reeds is made
up of nearly 40 elements of tabletop equipmentincluding lenses,
prisms, lasers, an ion pump, and a vacuum chamberand another dozen
pieces of electronic gear.
Most of it rests on a one-ton sheet of
stainless steel about the size of a billiard table, evenly perforated
by small screwholes that allow tabletop pieces to be fastened down. The
focal point of the apparatus is a small tube of transparent glass known
as a trapping cell, which contains a thin metal filament filled
with rubidium atoms.