Creating the first atom laser earned MIT researcher Wolfgang Ketterle one of 10 Discover Magazine Awards for Technological Innovation for 1998. Two other MIT technologies -- the penguin boat and the quantum computer -- and a third resulting from an MIT-industry collaboration were finalists in the ninth annual competition, which was capped by an awards ceremony on June 6 at Epcot Walt Disney World Resort.
Almost 4,000 innovators were invited to apply for the 1998 awards. With four finalists, MIT was well represented among the 45 who made the first cut.
The Discover Awards celebrate those whose creativity improves the quality of our everyday lives and "alerts us to what's next from the frontier of human achievement and ingenuity." Each of the winners and finalists are featured in the July issue of Discover, a general-interest science magazine with a monthly circulation of 7 million. The finalists also receive all-expenses-paid trips to Disney World for themselves and a guest.
Discover Awards are given in nine categories: aviation and aerospace; computer hardware and electronics; computer software; emerging technology (this is the category that Professor Ketterle won); environment; robotics; sight; sound and transportation. A 10th category, "Editor's Choice," has only one finalist. That award went to the project heads of Pathfinder, the spacecraft that landed on Mars last year, and Sojourner, its robotic rover.
Five finalists are named per category; out of the five, one is chosen as overall winner for that category. This year, two of the judges were from MIT: Marvin Minsky, professor of computer science, pioneer of artificial intelligence and inventor of the confocal microscope (computer software category), and Toyoichi Tanaka, the Otto and Jane Morningstar Professor of Science (emerging technology category).
"An atom laser does for atoms what an optical laser does for light," wrote Professor Ketterle in his application for the award. "It generates an intense beam of coherent atoms. The step from ordinary atomic beams to atom lasers is analogous to the step from the lightbulb to the optical laser."
Asked to describe how the innovation will benefit the average consumer or the public in general, he wrote, "The atom laser might replace conventional atomic beams where ultimate precision is required, e.g., in atomic clocks and for tests of the fundamental laws of physics. Ultimately, [it] might lead to high-resolution atom deposition on surfaces for the fabrication of novel materials and nanostructures."
A few years ago, Professor Ketterle and his research team managed to merge a bunch of atoms into what he calls a single matter-wave, and then used fluctuating magnetic fields to shape the matter-wave into a beam much like a laser's.
When they were able to generate two separate matter-waves, made them overlap and snapped a photograph of a so-called "interference pattern" that can only be created by coherent waves, the researchers had proof that they had created the first atom laser. He said that learning to perfectly control the motion of atoms is the next challenge.
Professor Ketterle is quick to point out that applications for this technology are at least a decade away. He said he was particularly "excited, thrilled and surprised" to win a Discover award because "it's unusual for people like us who work on basic science to be recognized for technological innovation. On the other hand, it's nice to see that people who think in terms of new technology are so far-sighted to recognize our work."
He added that he appreciates the broad reach of a popular vehicle such as Discover magazine. "It's just wonderful that our work was recognized," he said.
The three other MIT-related finalists were Proteus the flipper-propelled penguin boat, developed by Professor Michael Triantafyllou of ocean engineering, (automotive and transportation category); a molecular quantum computer that computes with the nuclei of molecules in a liquid, developed by Associate Professor Neil A. Gershenfeld of the Media Lab's Physics and Media Group (emerging technology category); and the TruePosition Wireless Location System, a system for locating callers from mobile phones within seconds (computer software category). Research on the TruePosition technology began in 1992, but since 1995 it's been a team development between TruePosition and an MIT Haystack Observatory team led by Haystack Associate director Alan E. Rogers.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 10, 1998.