The Steampunk Satyricon

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What Did Chu Do?

Second Life avatar that is definitely not Dr. Steven Chu

There are idiots in this world who are actually more impressed by a Super Bowl ring than a Nobel Prize in physics. Fortunately, when the White House needed to appoint a Secretary of Energy in 2009, staffers tossed aside the résumés of grossly under-qualified NFL quarterbacks and selected Dr. Steven Chu, Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Chu received a Nobel Prize for his work in 1997... but what exactly did he do to get it? What did Chu do?

First off, it should be noted that what he did, he didn't do alone. Chu shared the prize with two other physicists -- William D. Phillips of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji of l'École Normale Supérieure in Paris -- and all of them were no doubt assisted by a small army of physics graduate students and postdocs. Science is rarely a solitary endeavor these days.

Chu and company were recognized for perfecting a process called "laser cooling." Most people hear the word "laser" and immediately think of heat rays burning or melting or slicing through things... or just projecting little red dots onto PowerPoint™ presentations. On a human scale, lasers that have been configured a certain way can do those things. On the subatomic scale, a laser beam is just photons, little particles of light with a few distinguishing, but very important, characteristics. Including the ability to make things cold.