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Science Impacts

Gas lasers are among the inventions influenced by NIST research on spectroscopy, a technique for identifying and characterizing substances based on the characteristics of the emitted light, which depend on the energy levels of the atoms. Laser pioneers used Atomic Energy Levels, three volumes published by NIST between 1949 and 1958, which are still considered models of authenticated, verified, consistent spectroscopic data.

From astrophysics to medicine, many fields of science benefit from research using synchrotrons— large, donut-shaped facilities that produce a unique type of radiation. The first regular experiments using synchrotron light were carried out in 1961 at NIST. Today, NIST's synchrotron facility supports work by space scientists and the microelectronics industry.

If stranded on a desert island, at least one prominent scientist wants to have with him NIST's Handbook of Mathematical Functions, first published in 1964 and reprinted many times by government and commercial publishers. So influential that it was cited every 1½ hours of each working day during the mid-1990s, the Handbook is currently being updated in digital format.

One of the space program's longest-running experiments—laser reflectors left on the lunar surface by astronauts on three Apollo missions—was suggested and initially designed by a scientist at JILA, a Boulder, Colo., research institute jointly operated by NIST and the University of Colorado. The experiment defined the distance between the Earth and moon to better than 2.5 cm (1 inch).

NIST's measurement expertise has a far-reaching impact on science. For instance, NIST's world-record measurement of the frequency of laser light in 1972 led to a much more accurate value for the speed of light, thus enabling scientists to better understand the behavior of the universe. The new value for the speed of light then led to a more stable definition of the meter.

A Nobel Prize and a new state of matter are among the outcomes of NIST research to develop and apply methods of cooling and trapping atoms with laser light. NIST physicist William D. Phillips won the Nobel prize in physics in 1997, and scientists at NIST and the University of Colorado created the Bose-Einstein condensate, a new state of matter, in 1995.

NIST research on materials has many practical applications, such as a new explanation for the sinking of the ocean liner Titanic in 1912. A NIST metallurgist's microscopic analysis of 48 wrought iron rivets recovered from the ship's hull have revealed flaws that made the rivets prone to premature failure. The collision with the iceberg may have caused the rivet heads to break off.

The forerunner of the scanning tunneling microscope, a Nobel Prize-winning invention used today in fields ranging from molecular biology to nanotechnology, was developed by a NIST physicist in 1971. The Topografiner was a novel microscope that surveyed surfaces in great detail, nearly to the level of individual atoms. It is a highlight of many NIST advances in surface science.

More than four decades of scientific achievements—from his elegant theories of how materials transform from one phase to another, to contributions to the discovery of quasicrystals—distinguish the work of NIST materials scientist John W. Cahn, who won the 1998 National Medal of Science, the nation's highest scientific honor. Cahn was recognized for his contributions to the fields of materials science, solid-state physics, chemistry, and mathematics.

Notice of Online Archive: This page is no longer being updated and remains online for informational and historical purposes only. The information is accurate as of 2001. For questions about page contents, please inquiries [at] nist.gov (contact us).
Created July 22, 2013, Updated March 9, 2017