Orangeburg, S.C. – Dr. Wolfgang Ketterle’s research into the coldest matter in the universe garnered him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001.
Dr. Ketterle was on the Claflin University campus Thursday to share his discovery of the Bose-Einstein condensate and passion for physics during an afternoon lecture in the W.V. Middleton Fine Arts Center.
In addition to Claflin faculty, staff and students, dozens of students and faculty members from Orangeburg Consolidated School District 5, Felton Laboratory School, Palmetto Scholars Academy in Charleston, Furman University, The Citadel, the Medical University of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina attended the event.
“He has made many contributions to physics,” said Dr. Nick Panasik, associate professor of biology and chemistry at Claflin. “He’s from a family that taught their children that it’s really important to love what you do.
“He’s very passionate about physics. You can see that in the way he talks and interactions.”
Dr. Ketterle interacted with Claflin students before the program in the Molecular Science and Research Center during a poster session highlighting research taking place at the University.
Second-year graduate student Iqbal Mahmud from Bangladesh said the physicist’s visit was an opportunity to show the type of research going on at Claflin.
First-year graduate student Jessica Fuller of Orangeburg added, “Not many students get the opportunity to meet such an esteemed scientist. I’m excited to be able to talk to him and get to know him.”
Dr. Ketterle said he was impressed by the energy at Claflin University, and “the passion and the quality of the faculty, and also the quality of the research facilities I’ve seen here. This is really a good school.”
Ketterle said he was eager to visit Claflin “because it is important not only to talk to your colleagues who are already excited about the field, but get other people excited about a field they don’t know.”
“Modern science and technology is based on new materials. We have computers with memory chips and hard drives that have properties that weren’t possible just 10 years ago, and this is due to new materials,” Dr. Ketterle said. “So we are constantly developing new materials that have a big impact on science, technology and society.”
A new phase of matter – first predicted by Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein in 1925 – is what garnered Dr. Ketterle, along with Eric A. Cornell and Carl E. Wieman, the Nobel Prize for their experimental realization of Bose-Einstein condensation, the unique state of matter in which certain types of atoms can exist in temperatures close to absolute zero.
The reason it took 70 years to discover this new state of matter, Dr. Ketterle said, was because “we didn’t have the technology to reach this extremely low temperature.”
For the research, sodium atoms – the same kind he said are used in yellow streetlamps – were cooled to temperatures “closer to absolute zero than ever before” through the processes of laser cooling and evaporative cooling, and trapped in a magnetic field.
“You can say, in some of my most productive years as a researcher, I was building refrigerators, but not of the common kind,” he said.
In fact, Dr. Ketterle was also on the team that achieved the lowest temperature ever recorded – 450 picokelvin, which was documented by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2003. That temperature, he said, is a billionth of a degree of absolute zero.
“At absolute zero, everything comes to a standstill,” he said. It is the “lowest possible energy state.”
“The Bose-Einstein condensate is the simplest system in nature. It shows the phenomenon of superfluidity and superconductivity,” he said. “This is pure research … but it’s also useful. … We can test out what is possible in nature, and hopefully develop new materials.”
Dr. Verlie Tisdale, dean of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, said Dr. Ketterle’s visit is an awesome opportunity for Claflin students to meet a scientist of such high caliber.
“Claflin University is a small institution, but we try to ensure that our students have an opportunity to compete with the best of the best,” she said. “In order to give our students a world-class education, we try to ensure they are exposed to everything.”
Dr. Ketterle will also be on the Claflin campus Friday, Sept. 27, to lead an informal seminar panel on “Leadership and Careers in the Sciences.”
Dr. Ketterle's visit is the third time a Nobel Laureate has been to the Orangeburg institution. Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Luc Montagnier, who was instrumental in discovering the source of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry Dr. Martin Chalfie have both greeted students and shared their research at Claflin University.