Friday, November 18, 2011, 3pm
Innovation Hall room 136

Ian B. Spielman
Fellow, Joint Quantum Institute
National Institute of Standards and Technology
and the University of Maryland

Ultracold Atoms: Understanding Complex Systems Through Simplicity

What is the origin of complexity?  This simple question underlies some of the must fundamental problems in science: how can simple chemical components organize themselves into living cells and organisms?  What governs order on the astronomical scale?  While these examples involve numerous distinct interacting components, similar order appears in systems of identical particles all with the same interactions.  Complexity from simplicity: this is fundamental physics.

Nowhere is such complexity more common than in solids where innumerable electrons interact with the familiar Coulomb law, yet scaling up we can get different materials such as semiconductors, metals, superconductors, magnets, and so forth.  How do these work?  Some we understand, and some like high-temperature superconductors, we do not.

Seemingly simple, electrons moving in a crystal are still moving in a complicated environment; an intricate crystal structure, random imperfections, and a myriad of other details make it difficult to formulate simple laws that predict behavior.

In contrast, systems of ultra-cold atoms -- tenuous vapors of atoms cooled to just a billionth of a degree above absolute zero -- truly allow us to ask and answer the question "how does order appear from simplicity?"  In a realm where quantum mechanics rules, we create atomic systems that are analogous to more complex material systems, allowing us to better understand the fundamental reason for physical effects.  In my talk I will answer such common party questions as: How neutral atoms can experience the Lorentz force?  And, what can cold atoms tell us about spintronics?