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NIST Physicist William Phillips Wins 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics

William D. Phillips, a leading researcher in ultra-low temperature atomic physics at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, today was named a co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics. He shares the award with Steven Chu of Stanford University and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Collège de France and École Normale Supérieure, Paris, France.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences selected the trio for work they did independently on the development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light. Phillips will receive his Nobel Prize in Stockholm, Sweden, on Dec. 10, 1997.

A resident of Gaithersburg, Md., and a NIST Fellow since 1996, Phillips 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, have 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. His official duties at NBS originally were related to 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 expanded the experiments and demonstrated that a beam of neutral atoms could be slowed and cooled with radiation pressure from a laser.

NIST's 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, along with their earlier demonstration of magnetic trapping, 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.

Phillips was honored earlier this year when he 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.

He has been married to Jane Phillips for 27 years and has two daughters, Caitlin and Christine.

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.

Statements from NIST and the Department of Commerce


William D. Phillips, NIST Fellow, NIST Atomic Physics Division:

"I am thrilled to share in this prize along with Steven Chu and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji. The joint award emphasizes that this work was not done in isolation. My colleagues in this field have influenced me profoundly and given me an enormous amount of help and stimulation. The research honored by this prize is the result of a huge effort by many other people. The vitality of the research environment at NIST and the scientific quality of my group have been essential to what we have accomplished."

Katharine Gebbie, director of the NIST Physics Laboratory:

"This is a wonderful honor for Bill Phillips, for his colleagues in the Physics Laboratory and for NIST. Bill is an extremely talented and special person. Those who have worked with him or heard him speak are keenly aware of his passion for physics. His pioneering work in laser cooling and trapping of atoms has formed the basis for many advances in measurement science and standards. Current applications of importance to science and technology include atomic clocks, atom lasers, atom optics and atomic lithography. We are delighted that Bill has shared this prize with Steven Chu and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, and we wish them all the very best in their future endeavors."

Robert Hebner, acting director of NIST:

"We're tremendously excited by this news and proud as can be to have Bill Phillips on the NIST staff. Achievements in science and technology that are so important to this nation and to our economy are limited by what we can achieve in measurement science. The elegant work that Bill and his colleagues have done at the frontiers of atomic measurement opens up new possibilities both in science and measurement technology."

Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley:

"Dr. Phillips' exceptional work highlights a key role of the Commerce Department in pushing the limits of measurement science and laying the foundations for the basic measurement technology support required by the U.S. science and industry. His research may lead to dramatically improved measurements of time and length likely to be needed by U.S. industry in the development of economically beneficial advanced technologies in the next century. I'm extremely proud that he is a long-time employee of the Commerce Department and that his extraordinary vision, talent and expertise are being recognized today throughout the world. In sharing this year's Nobel Prize in Physics, Dr. Phillips adds yet another laurel to the outstanding research record of the Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology."

Released October 15, 1997, Updated November 27, 2017