‘Amazing Light’ leads physicists to California

By Courtney Klemm

Two University physics professors left Thursday for California as finalists in a global competition that allowed them to participate in “Amazing Light: Visions for Discovery,” an international symposium honoring Charles Townes, winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics.

Assistant Professor Brian DeMarco and Professor Paul Kwiat were selected from a field of 89 applicants who were all under 40 years old.

“I was a little surprised, but happy,” DeMarco said, of learning he was a finalist. “I’m excited. A few of my friends from grad school and people I know in the field are going. It will be fun to see them.”

The 18 finalists, whose major themes were inspired by Townes’ ideas, will present their research at the symposium to be held Oct. 6-8, at the University of California at Berkeley. For Kwiat, who came to the University in 2001, it will be a chance to return to the school where he earned his Ph. D. and will allow him to visit with old colleagues.

“I thought it might be interesting to enter, and I was thinking of going anyway (before I got an invitation),” he said. “I’m extremely happy since I wasn’t exactly sure what the competition would be like. I’m particularly happy that Brian is a finalist too, and since we aren’t in the same area, we’re not competing against each other. The fact that there are two of us from one place bodes well.”

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    The symposium is based on three different categories. Judges will choose three winners from each category, resulting in monetary prizes of $20,000, $10,000 and $5,000. DeMarco said the symposium would be comprised of young researchers, such as himself, and people who are already very established in their lines of work.

    Before coming to Illinois in 2003, DeMarco held a National Research Council Fellowship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He has since won several awards for his work with neutral and charged ultra-cold trapped atoms. His project for the competition focuses on the gases of atoms.

    “We use laser cooling and evaporative cooling to cool these gases to immeasurably low temperatures,” he said. “We then study the properties. (The low temperatures) make the state of matter very unusual. We hope to use these cold atom gases to learn about other things, such as atomic clocks. … We hope to use tricks to make it behave like something else.”

    Kwiat’s presentation, on the other hand, is called “The Entanglement Revolution,” and deals with quantum mechanics. It describes how the world behaves at the single particle level. With entanglement, Kwiat and his research group study the strange correlations between particles that are separated.

    “We came up with ways of producing entangled pairs of photons,” he said. “The rates of making pairs are increasing and are now up to 10 million pairs a second. (At the symposium), we will describe these techniques, current projects and future developments.”

    Jeremiah Sullivan, head of the department of physics, said the department was thrilled at the professors’ accomplishments.

    “Both are marvelous and extremely talented physicists,” he said. “We were delighted when we found out, especially the fact that we had two finalists. It’s good that the best young people out there in this field will see some of there peers here (at the University). They are both fantastic teachers and good citizens of the department.”

    Both DeMarco and Kwiat said they felt their attendance at the symposium was important to the University and the physics department.

    “It draws a lot of interest to the University from grad students who are the backbone of the University and its research,” DeMarco said. “It also draws attention to the research, and highlights what is important about the University.”

    Kwiat said he and DeMarco are very optimistic about the outcome of the competition.

    “We’re very happy we’re among the finalists,” he said. “Hopefully we come back with two prizes. It will be a great experience to go and hear forward-thinking ideas that people have in this area.”