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Three Scientists Share 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics for BEC Discovery

The 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Eric Cornell of NIST/JILA, Wolfgang Ketterle of MIT, and Carl Wieman of Colorado and JILA, an institute run jointly by NIST and the University of Colorado. Cornell and Wieman are recognized for being the first to achieve a new state of matter: the ultra-cold gas known as a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) in neutral atoms, which could one day aid in the development of ultra-small machines. Ketterle soon thereafter produced a larger BEC and has made extensive study of BEC properties. The three men will share the $943,000 prize.

Their joint discovery of the Bose-Einstein condensate is "going to bring revolutionary applications in such fields as precision measurement and nanotechnology," according to the citation by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The research will help scientists use motionless atoms to measure the fundamental properties of matter. "Revolutionary applications of [Bose-Einstein condensates] in lithography, nanotechnology and holography appear to be just around the corner," the citation said.

The BEC phenomenon, foreseen by Satyendra Bose and Albert Einstein in the 1920s, can come about when atoms are chilled to very low temperatures. Quantum theory holds that the wavelike nature of atoms allows them to spread out and even overlap. Indeed at a high enough density and a low enough temperature (billionths of degrees above absolute zero) the atoms can, like the photons in a laser, enter into a common quantum state with a common energy. In other words, the atoms are all coordinated (coherent) with each other and constitute a single "super atom." BEC was possible experimentally when, in a magnetoptic trap, a combination of laser cooling (a web of laser beams hitting the atoms from many directions) and evaporative cooling (a web of magnetic fields encourage the warmer atoms to depart, leaving the cooler atoms to coalesce in the trap) brought about by unprecedentedly low temperatures.

BEC is still largely restricted to fundamental research in physics labs, but numerous potential applications beckon, such as the use of BEC beams ("atom lasers") for doing high-resolution lithography for microchips, interferometry (navigation, gravity wave detectors, etc.), high-precision clocks, and "atomtronics" (atoms sent around a microchip or down hollow fibers).

The Nobel prizes are presented on December 10 each year, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death in 1896. To mark this year's centennial, all living Nobel laureates have been invited to the ceremonies and related seminars, with about 150 expected in Stockholm and 30 in Oslo, including former South African President Nelson Mandela, and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

-Philip F. Schewe and Benjamin P. Stein of AIP's Public Information Division contributed to this article.

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