William D. Phillips, a leading researcher in laser cooling of atoms at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences on April 29. Election to the NAS is considered one of the highest possible honors for a U.S. scientist or engineer.
Phillips, a resident of Gaithersburg and a NIST Fellow since 1996, is internationally known for advancing basic knowledge and new techniques to chill atoms to extremely low temperatures. The cooling and trapping of atoms, a discipline that emerged in the mid-1970s with the advent of laboratory lasers, has allowed scientists to observe and measure quantum phenomena in atoms that seem to defy the physical principles governing our tangible room-temperature realm.
After earning his Ph.D. in physics and completing post-doctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Phillips came to NIST (then the National Bureau of Standards) in 1978 to work in the Electricity Division. While at MIT, Phillips had completed two thesis experiments, one in the well-established area of magnetic resonance and the other with newly available tunable laboratory lasers.
His official duties at NBS originally were related to his first thesis experiment, involving precision electrical measurements. However, he explains, he was allowed to use "stolen moments to dabble in laser-cooling" with lab equipment he brought from MIT. With encouragement from NBS management, he continued experiments and demonstrated that a beam of neutral atoms could be slowed and cooled with radiation pressure from a laser.
NIST's accomplished and internationally recognized laser cooling and trapped atom research program grew out of these early experiments. Phillips and the team he built have made numerous pivotal contributions to the field. For example, in the mid-1980s, Phillips' team found serious discrepancies between its own measurements and the generally accepted "Doppler cooling limit." They demonstrated that it was actually possible to chill atoms well below the accepted limits down to a few microKelvins, or just millionths of a degree above absolute zero. This discovery paved the way for scientists seeking to create Bose-Einstein condensation, an exotic new form of matter in which atoms all fall into their lowest energy levels and merge into a single quantum state. In the summer of 1995, a NIST/University of Colorado group in Boulder, Colo., announced the creation of the first Bose-Einstein condensate.
Phillips and his team are continuing to study ultra-cold trapped atoms with spin-off applications for improved accuracy in atomic clocks and in fabrication of nanostructures. For the latter, Phillips envisions using light to focus an atom laser to create what might be the basis of a next generation of ultra-small structures for electronic circuits.
"All of the people who have been members of this group over the years have made incredible contributions. It's been a fantastic experience," Phillips says. "This isn't something that I did. It's something that we did. We were there to take advantage of the lucky breaks that we got."
Phillips, originally from Pennsylvania, was elected with 59 other new members and 15 foreign associates from 11 countries in recognition of distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Phillips, his wife and two children live in Gaithersburg, Md.
The National Academy of Sciences is a private organization of scientists and engineers dedicated to the furtherance of science and its use for the general welfare. The NAS was established in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation, signed by Abraham Lincoln, that calls on the academy to act as an official advisor to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science or technology.
As a non-regulatory agency of the Commerce Department's Technology Administration, NIST promotes U.S. economic growth by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards.