World's First Atom Laser Carves New Place in Science History

Article excerpt

Inside a cramped, cable-draped lab near the Charles River, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have built the world's first laser that fires a beam of atoms instead of light.

It is an experimental, rudimentary device. But the ability to manipulate a state of matter, that until recently was only a theory, could foster a technological revolution as dramatic as that sparked by the visible-light laser, some researchers say.

"I'm incredibly excited by this result," says William Phillips, a physicist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. A year and a half ago, a team from NIST and the University of Colorado became the first group to produce a unique state of matter first hypothesized in the 1920s. "This is going to carry us into a whole new area of research," Dr. Phillips continues, noting that experiments using atom lasers could help answer nagging, if subtle, questions about quantum mechanics and how it applies to efforts ranging from measuring processes at the subatomic level to attempts to develop ultra-high-speed quantum computing. Nor will atom lasers be limited to physics labs, he adds. They could lead to applications "we can't even imagine today." "When the first laser was demonstrated in the early '60s, people said, 'Now that we've got it, what do we do with it?' " says Phillip Schewe, with the American Institute of Physics. Back then, he notes, no one predicted that lasers would be used for everything from etching computer chips and cleaning teeth to putting holes in the nipples of baby bottles. Wolfgang Ketterle, the MIT physicist leading the research team, notes that because the atom laser requires a very pure vacuum, it's unlikely to find its way to grocery store check-out counters. But he and others envision important uses nonetheless: building more-compact computer chips, developing more accurate clocks to boost the accuracy of navigation satellites, and assembling mini-machines on a scale approaching a billionth of a meter.. "A well-controlled beam of atoms would allow you to deposit atoms with the accuracy of an atom's diameter," says Michael Andrews, a member of the MIT research team and the lead author of one of two papers appearing this week announcing the team's results. Along with Marc-Oliver Mewes, another member of the research group, Mr. …