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THE SINGAPORE MAGAZINE OF RESEARCH,
TECHNOLOGY AND EDUCATION
About Innovation
SPOTLIGHT:
Quantum Leap
Carl E Wieman won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001 together with Eric A Cornell and Wolfgang Ketterle for work on Bose-Einstein condensation (BEC). The scientists achieved this new state of fundamental matter in alkali atom gases, a phenomenon which allows the study of basic quantum-mechanical processes. BEC holds the promise of precision measurement of fundamental natural phenomena, with possible applications in lithography, nanotechnololgy, and holography. INNOVATION's Lay Leng TAN spoke to Wieman, a professor at the Department of Physics, University of Colorado, US, about trends in the materials field and the shape of things to come.
by Kwang Wei TJAN

Innovation:

What trends do you anticipate in materials research, and how does Bose-Einstein condensation (BEC) help advance the field?

Wieman:

BEC allows one to control and study quantum physics in new ways, and explore aspects of it that are still obscure. We can see many novel quantum behaviours. At this point, we are using BEC to better understand the quantum properties that will likely be important in future uses of materials and in certain types of sensitive measuring instruments.

Innovation:

At what application stage of BEC are we now?

Wieman:

Two different application features exist. First, BEC provides a very good research system for learning about certain types of physics, but the application lies not so much in the use of BEC as in the application of the physics knowledge we can obtain from studying the BEC. It is a good system for better understanding of the transition from the classical world to the quantum world - or the large-scale world to the submicroscopic world that is of increasing importance to modern technologies and the materials used in them.

As you make traditional transistors and wires smaller and smaller, you face this transition. Manufacturers are already starting to encounter changes in properties of materials when they are built into very small structures; as they go ever smaller, they are going to encounter ever-larger differences in the way wires behave because smaller means more "quantum-like."

A second area of applications is the one that uses BEC directly. BEC has properties that differ from those of any other material we had before. In the past few years, people have started pursuing ideas for how to use these properties to create extremely sensitive instruments for measuring such things as gravitational fields. Such instruments would be useful to detect minerals and oil for mining. There is also interest in various military applications of such instruments for things like submarine detection and undersea-mountain location. The work is still in an early stage however.

Another area with tremendous interest is quantum computing. Quantum computing has tremendous potential in principle; the hard part is figuring out how to actually do it. One important step to doing it is to be able to create a quantum state that you can control and measure well. BEC gives you that capacity, and people are just starting to work on using this in quantum computing.

Innovation:

Will BEC lead to an understanding of nanotechnology?

Wieman:

As things get smaller and smaller, quantum physics becomes important and useful in different ways. BEC is helping us better understand certain aspects of quantum physics that are important at the nano and subnano level.

Innovation:

What is your current research focus?

Wieman:

We are studying the properties of BEC under different conditions and how to control those properties. One aspect of this is turning the atoms in BEC into molecules - a new way of doing chemistry and creating new types of molecules. The molecular behaviour is strange, novel, and very different from the kind of chemistry done before. That is what makes it interesting.

Innovation:

What is hot in your field now?

Wieman:

In my speciality field of atomic physics, the hot areas are ultralow-temperature atomic studies, quantum computing, and deeper understanding of information at the quantum level. Work in BEC connected to the physics of high temperature superconductivity may provide important insights. This is approaching the understanding of high-temperature superconductivity from a completely different direction from past research. High-temperature superconductivity is an area of enormous potential technological importance.

Looking at the field of physics more broadly, those areas with new tools, new measuring instruments, and new ways of looking at things are leading to many new discoveries. Examples of this are astrophysics, cosmology, and biophysics.

Biophysics is where physics and biology overlap. Physicists and biologists working together are now beginning to be able to control, study, and understand things at the single-cell and even single-molecule level. I am sure that this is a field in which many breakthroughs will come in the next few years.

Innovation:

If you were starting out today, which area would you focus on?

Wieman:

This question involves more than just deciding what is the area that is most ripe for discoveries; it also involves the way different kinds of science are done. The kind of science I like doing involves building almost everything myself or with students. I find it fun to work out what apparatus is needed and construct it. Other kinds of science take the form either of teamwork on huge projects or of scientists examining data from complex machines that teams of engineers have designed and built. That is less appealing to me personally, so I would start by choosing an area where I could build the apparatus used in the research.

Beyond that, I would pick an area where the important new discoveries will most likely be found; I think that the best predictor of that is to look areas where new technology will allow one to control or observe matter in new ways.

As an example, when I started my career, lasers had just been invented that permitted the colour of the light to be controlled. Earlier you couldn't control the colour of light from a laser. I realised then that this new laser technology would make it possible to do new things with atoms - like study and control them much better. All the discoveries I made in my career were derived from those new capabilities of the laser.

If I were starting all over again, I would do much the same thing - look not so much towards a particular field, but rather towards areas where new technology permits exciting new things to be done. The atomic-force microscope and its relatives is a good example of such a technology. The instrument allows one to literally look at individual atoms, move them around, and control them. Another exciting new area of technology that will lead to good science are lasers that can produce extremely intense, extremely short, pulses of light.

Innovation:

Do you see Asia as having any niche opportunities in your field?

Wieman:

I am mostly familiar with the work in Japan in my particular subfield of physics. A number of Japanese research groups are doing quite interesting things.

Some Asian scientists have suggested that the US has a slight advantage because people in the US tend to have more independence. The head of research of a large business in Japan told me that he worries that his researchers tend to be too cautious, and people resist rushing in with new ideas or changing direction. Perhaps young people doing research in Asia need encouragement to be more independent and different. On the other hand, science in Asia has the benefit that the public tends to view science and scientists as much more important than does the public in the US.

Such differences are minor however - the real issue boils down to opportunity and resources; it does not matter what country you are in. In the right working environment, whether in Asia or elsewhere, people can do great research. Important discoveries have come out of Asia, and I am sure there will be many more in the future.

Innovation:

What do you think was the 20th century's most important discovery?

Wieman:

It was clearly the understanding of quantum mechanics. This gave us a completely different picture of nature and its underlying laws.

I would suspect that the biggest breakthrough of this century will involve biology. As scientists' tools and their understanding of the issues improve, they will grasp the nature of biological processes at a much deeper level and control them better.

Innovation:

As a proponent of scientific education, are you involved in any Asian educational systems?

Wieman:

I am mostly engaged in science education in the US at the university and national levels. However, I attended a conference on science education in Malaysia in 2004 and talked with many Asian science educators. Some Malaysian teachers are using computer-based simulations that my group has developed for teaching physics.

I am visiting Singapore for the International Conference on Materials for Advanced Technologies in 2005 in part to learn more about the Singapore educational system.

Innovation:

Do you see big differences between the Asian and the Western educational systems?

Wieman:

Some differences exist, but I do not know very much about the variation there is from one Asian country to another. I am somewhat familiar with the Singapore and Japanese preuniversity education systems because the US gets compared unfavourably to them. Science classes in Japan and Singapore cover fewer topics than do comparable courses in the US but in much greater depth. This provides a superior education.

Innovation:

Do you find the educational system rather structured? How can the system be modified so that students who want to pursue research may?

Wieman:

I am looking at how to achieve a system that balances the efficiency of structures to reach a large number of students with limited resources, but is not so structured that students do not learn to think for themselves. Herein lies the challenge of modern education.

We can do things that will improve the effectiveness of current education systems. I think that the current educational system that relies on formal examinations - particularly in the US but probably also in other parts of the world - is likely to discourage potential researchers and scientists who as students may not perform well in formal examinations. I do not think those exams reveal who has the capacity to be a good researcher. We need to improve science education for all students, and we need to develop more effective or meaningful ways of evaluating how much they learn and what their capabilities are. Once we do that, I think we'll be better training both students who will become scientists and those students who will go into other professions.

Innovation:

What attributes ought a person possess to conduct successful research?

Wieman:

I think the first thing is an ability to focus very intently on one topic or question and not get distracted. You must have persistence to work on that matter for a long time. Some people characterise successful scientists as obsessed, but I think such intense focus is essential to be an outstanding researcher.

A second important element is the realisation that science remains a social activity. A big part of science involves convincing other scientists that the work has value so that they get enthusiastic about it. You need to think about what interests other people as well as yourself - how you can communicate with other scientists and the public to explain why you do what you do, and why it is worthwhile.

The third element is the ability to work hard. During my school career, I was never considered the smartest person around, but I was always the hardest working.

Innovation:

What part does luck or serendipity play in success?

Wieman:

I do not think it is as important as is often claimed, though it may play a part sometimes in determining whether or not you get a Nobel Prize. When I look at good scientists and the discoveries they have made, in many cases someone else could have done what they did earlier but did not because they failed to appreciate its importance at the time. So it may have seemed like luck when the discovery was made, but there was clearly some important difference about the scientist that made the discovery from the earlier ones who could have but did not.

I tend to believe that the important difference is that a good scientist is thinking about what is happening and asking questions all the time - whether something makes sense, whether it is worth studying more deeply, or whether it is of no significance. Most of the time, good scientists make their own luck, and if they miss one opportunity, they get another chance later.

Innovation:

What advice do you have for researchers?

Wieman:

Science-based technology clearly has great importance worldwide both in terms of the economy and in terms of affecting the world via the technology such as global warming and pollution. Scientists have to take more responsibility to communicate better to non-scientists what science is really about, what there is to worry about, and who should be listened to or ignored in evaluating the potential global benefits and dangers of science-related technology. Scientists tend to do their research without worrying about the rest of the world, but I don't think we can afford to do that any more.

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