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Five Nobel Laureates at a Single Symposium

Event in São Carlos honors American physicist and brings together a quintet of Laureates

Presentation by Nobel Laureate in Physics William Phillips: a cloud is formed by the evaporation of liquid nitrogen during his talk about cold atoms and atomic clocks

EDUARDO CESARPresentation by Nobel Laureate in Physics William Phillips: a cloud is formed by the evaporation of liquid nitrogen during his talk about cold atoms and atomic clocksEDUARDO CESAR

From São Carlos – Celebrated officially in December 2012, the 80th birthday of U.S. physicist Daniel Kleppner, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), served as a reason to bring together, for almost a week at the São Carlos Institute of Physics (IFSC) of the University of São Paulo (USP), some of the biggest names in atomic, molecular, and optical physics. Between February 26 and March 2, 2013, more than 40 renowned researchers from Brazil and other countries, including five Nobel Laureates, took part in lectures and events organized by the Optics and Photonics Research Center at São Carlos – CePOF São Carlos, one of the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDC) financed by FAPESP. The meetings also marked 11 years of CePOF activities.

In an auditorium that seats 250, almost always occupied by students, professors, and researchers, the audience had a chance, unique in Brazil, to listen to presentations by four winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics—Serge Haroche, a Frenchman from the École Normale Supérieure and the Collège de France in Paris, and Americans Eric Cornell, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, David Wineland, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, and William Phillips, also from NIST, but from its unit in Gaithersburg, Maryland—and one recipient of the Prize in Chemistry, Dudley Herschbach, also from the U.S., a professor emeritus at Harvard University.

Serge Haroche, Nobel Prize in Physics 2012, presents a gold medal from the Brazilian Physics Olympics to student Rogério Motisuki.  At left, Daniel Kleppner receives the title of honorary professor of the IFSC.

Eduardo CesarSerge Haroche, Nobel Prize in Physics 2012, presents a gold medal from the Brazilian Physics Olympics to student Rogério MotisukiEduardo Cesar

The highlight of the commemorations was a three-day symposium held in honor of Kleppner who, during his long career, has made important contributions to the study of ultracold atoms and the development of laser spectroscopy and high precision measurements. He has also trained generations and generations of brilliant physicists through his textbooks on mechanics, and especially by working directly with students. All the Nobel Laureates present in São Carlos had some kind of connection with Kleppner. During the symposium, the veteran scientist received the title of Honorary Professor of the IFSC. “Dan (as his friends call him) is a producer of Nobel prizes and an emissary of Brazilian science,” says Vanderlei Salvador Bagnato, coordinator of CePOF and of the National Institute of Optics and Photonics, which receives support from the Ministry of Science and Technology as well as from FAPESP. “He sets the standard for almost all atomic physicists, who want to be like him.” From his days as a doctoral student at MIT in the 1980s, the Brazilian physicist recalls the exacting approach to science, combined with amiability, that Kleppner displayed in his dealings with students, even those who did not have him as their advisor, as was his case. “He welcomed me so many times in his house in Boston, to give me advice,” Bagnato recalls.

Modestly, Kleppner said he had greater influence on the training of a few Nobel Laureates in Physics who actually were his students, such as his friend William Phillips, also present in São Carlos. “I end up taking credit for more people than I actually taught,” says Kleppner. He was visibly touched by the tributes from friends and colleagues, who were tireless in including in their lectures old photos of the MIT researcher, including one in which he was seen checking out, from close up, the attributes of a talented samba school dancer during a long-ago trip to Brazil. Kleppner remembers the first time he visited this country, in 1989. “In those days, it was very hard to get financing for research,” he says. Since then, he’s been coming to Brazil about every five years. “In the past ten years, this country has made a lot of progress. The center here at São Carlos has a unique organizational setup, doing research in several areas, even in medicine,” he observes.


Eduardo CesarDaniel Kleppner receives the title of honorary professor of the IFSCEduardo Cesar

The topics of the presentations at the symposium were, in general, quite technical. They dealt with studies about potential applications of Bose-Einstein Condensates (the name given to a group of atoms or molecules that, when cooled to temperatures very near absolute zero, begin to behave like a single entity), techniques for cooling and trapping atoms and ions, and ways to build more accurate atomic clocks. In addition to photos and reminiscences about Kleppner, the speakers included, whenever possible, hints and bits of advice for the audience, especially for the students.

Eric Cornell, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics 2001 for having been the first to produce Bose-Einstein Condensates, mentioned the importance of being skilled at “selling” your research projects to people and writing interesting scientific articles that attract readers. “You have to come up with good titles for the articles, but without exaggerating or sounding crazy,” says Cornell, 51. In 2004, the physicist lost his left shoulder and arm, amputated to prevent the spread to the rest of his body of an infection caused by flesh-eating bacteria. He almost died at the time. Although the disease left marks on his body, his sense of humor survived intact. He makes jokes about himself and listens very attentively to others. A friend of Bagnato since 1985, when they were working together on their doctoral degrees at MIT, Cornell praised the recent work done at CePOF in the field of quantum turbulence, a phenomenon demonstrated for the first time by the São Carlos group in 2009.

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics 1997 for having developed methods to cool and trap atoms with a laser, William Phillips—Bill, to his friends—is, at age 64, a showman of science. Besides giving a technical lecture in São Carlos on “synthetic charges and fields for neutral atoms in a Bose-Einstein Condensate,” he gave an animated presentation about the weather, Einstein, and the “coldest thing in the Universe.” In his show, which he has even given for audiences of people who live on the banks of the Rio Negro, Phillips talks about the importance of atomic clocks, which are kept at extremely low temperatures with the aid of liquid nitrogen. The most modern devices might lose only a few seconds over millions of years. “GPS satellites use synchronized atomic clocks,” says Phillips, while repeatedly tossing liquid nitrogen in the direction of the spectators. In contact with surfaces that are warmer than its boiling point (77 K, or 196oC), liquid nitrogen evaporates and creates a whitish cloud.

The five Nobel Laureates who attended the event at USP in São Carlos.  From left to right: Chemist Dudley Herschbach and physicists Eric Cornell, William Phillips, Serge Haroche, and David Wineland.

Eduardo CesarThe five Nobel Laureates who attended the event at USP in São Carlos. From left to right: Chemist Dudley Herschbach and physicists Eric Cornell, William Phillips…Eduardo Cesar

Of all the five Nobel Laureates, Dudley Herschbach, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1986 for having developed a method for studying the dynamics of molecules, was the only one who had never before visited Brazil. He was surprised by the interest shown by young Brazilian students in becoming researchers. “In the U.S., young people think science is only for geniuses,” says Herschbach, 80. Besides participating in the symposium in Kleppner’s honor, the researcher gave the inaugural class in the courses leading to a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from USP of São Carlos. His lecture was entitled “Glimpses of Chemical Wizardry.” He emphasized the fact that science has made feats possible that had once seemed unattainable by human knowledge. The same lecture was given at the Chemistry Department of the nearby Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar).

Serge Haroche and David Wineland, the two researchers who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics 2012 for having developed methods for manipulating individual particles (photons or ions) without causing them to lose their quantum nature, have connections with Brazil that go back for more than two decades. Haroche, 68, has maintained collaborations with Brazilian researchers since the 1980s and frequently spends vacations in Bahia. One of his most distinguished collaborators is Luiz Davidovich, a physicist from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) with whom he has co-authored several scientific articles. “Ten or 20 years ago, it was hard in Brazil to obtain the expensive equipment needed in order to do research,” says Haroche. “Now it’s possible, and there’s freedom and imagination here.”

..., Serge Haroche, and David Wineland

Eduardo Cesar…, Serge Haroche, and David WinelandEduardo Cesar

Wineland, 69, has also been familiar with Brazil for at least 20 years. He has been here four or five times but does not remember exactly how many trips he’s made. More recently, he served on an international committee that periodically evaluated the scientific proposals and production of CePOF. “This center in São Carlos is a driving force behind Brazilian science,” Wineland says. In his lectures, he makes a point of emphasizing that it is not necessary to have always been a brilliant student in order to become a good scientist. “In high school, I was more interested in cars than in studying,” says Wineland. Later, of course, he developed a taste for cold atom physics, a choice that led him to win the Nobel Prize in October 2012.

On Saturday morning, March 2, the five Nobel Laureates plus Kleppner delivered honorable mention awards and bronze, silver, and gold medals to 250 elementary/middle and high school students from the state of São Paulo who had done especially well in last year’s Brazilian Physics Olympics. A resident of the city of São Paulo, student Rogério Motisuki, 17, who was in his final year of high school when he entered the contest, received the gold medal from the hands of Serge Haroche. Motisuki, who has just started studying computer engineering at USP’s Polytechnical School, had attended a party at that university the day before and almost considered not traveling to São Carlos (a three-hour trip by car) to receive his award. “But to receive the medal from a Nobel Laureate was a unique opportunity,” the student says.

It’s possible that Motisuki may come in contact with more Nobel Laureates in the near future. He has applied for admission to seven U.S. universities, among them MIT, Caltech, Stanford, and Cornell, where there’s no shortage of recipients of the biggest honor in science, and is waiting for the results. He has already been accepted by the University of Cincinnati, where he could get a partial scholarship, but this young man wants more.