Professor Wolfgang Ketterle
Professor Ketterle

Nobel Prize in Physics, 2001

Department of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Professor Wolfgang Ketterle, along with Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in December 2001. In January 2002, he visited Ireland to honour an invitation issued before the announcement of the Nobel Award, as the guest of the Institute of Physics, and spoke at Dublin City University, the University of Limerick and Queen's University Belfast. His visit to Ireland was his first speaking trip since the Nobel award, and a great deal of interest and excitement surrounded his time in Ireland.


Nobel Award

Professor Ketterle and two of his colleagues were awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering a new state of matter -- the Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the three scientists are recognized "for the achievement of Bose-Einstein condensation in dilute gases of alkali atoms, and for early fundamental studies of the properties of the condensates."


Understanding Bose-Einstein Condensates

According to the Nobel Award press material, a laser beam differs from the light from an ordinary light bulb in several ways. In the laser the light particles all have the same energy and oscillate together. To cause matter also to behave in this controlled way has long been a challenge for researchers.

In 1924 the Indian physicist Bose made important theoretical calculations regarding light particles. He sent the results to Einstein, who extended the theory to a certain type of atom. Einstein predicted that if a gas of such atoms were cooled to a very low temperature all the atoms would suddenly gather in the lowest possible energy state. The process is similar to when drops of liquid form a gas, hence the term condensation.


Professor Ketterle's Leap of Imagination

In a remarkable feat of scientific endeavour, Professor Ketterle has managed to create matter that is even colder than interstellar space. In that vast expanse of space, temperatures average -270°C. Professor Ketterle's untra cold gases of atoms exist at just billionths of degrees above absolute zero (-273°C) and are the coldest matter in the universe.

To create these atoms Prof Ketterle used a combination of laser cooling and evaporative cooling to achieve Bose-Einstein Condensation (BEC). The possibility of BEC was proposed almost 70 years ago and while it has been said that perhaps others could have achieved BEC and indeed a number of them have subsequently managed it, it took an extraordinary mind to take the leap of imagination to figure it out in the first place.

At these incredibly low temperatures, matter does some strange things. According to the Nobel citation, "When a gas consisting of uncoordinated atoms turns into a Bose-Einstein condensate, it is like when the various instruments of an orchestra with their different tones and timbres, after warming up individually, all join in the same tone." The atoms can form a beam just like a laser except that this is mater rather than a light beam. When the optical laser was first invented over 40 years ago, commentators called it a solution looking for a problem. The optical laser is now ubiquitous. Its functions range from surgical scalpels to supermarket scanners. Undoubtedly Professor Ketterle's atom laser will impact on science, medicine, industry and our everyday lives in the future. It is already predicted that the new control over matter that Bose-Einstein condensation provides may have far-reaching applications in both lithography and nanotechnology..

Professor Ketterle has strong views on what he calls 'curiousity driven science', in other words fundamental research that pushes out the boundaries of science rather than concentrates on short lead-time applications. He believes that fundamental research doesn't bring us new devices but rather whole new technologies.


Biographical Details

Professor Ketterle received a Diploma equivalent to a Master's degree from the Technical University of Munich in 1982, and a Ph.D. degree from the University of Munich in 1986. After postdoctoral work at the Max-Planck Institute for Quantum Physics in Garching, at the University of Heidelberg and at MIT, he joined the Physics faculty at MIT in 1993, where he is now a full Professor.

Dr. Ketterle is a member of the American and German physical societies. His awards include the Michael and Philip Platzman Award (MIT, 1994), a David and Lucile Packard Fellowship (1996), the Rabi Prize of the American Physical Society (1997), the Gustav-Hertz Prize of the German physical society (1997) and the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Physics (2000).