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Trio win physics Nobel for shedding light on optics

October 4, 2005

By Niklas Pollard

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Two Americans and a German won the
Nobel Physics Prize on Tuesday for optical research giving
extremely accurate measurements that could one day be used in
deep space travel or three-dimensional holographic television.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the prize to
Roy Glauber and John Hall and Germany’s Theodor Haensch for
studying light and harnessing lasers to create a “measuring
stick” to gauge frequencies with extreme precision.

Such precision will one day be needed for “navigation on
long space journeys and for space-based telescope arrays,” the
Academy said, while Haensch, the youngest of the winners at 63,
said it could even lead to “3D holographic television.”

Talking from Munich, Haensch told Reuters he was
“overwhelmed, happy and speechless” but the party would have to
wait: “I have no time to celebrate right at the moment. People
are waiting with champagne but I have to go to the airport to
go to San Francisco.”

Hall, 71 and from Colorado, said he might use his share of
the 10 million Swedish crown prize money to endow a scholarship
in science and technology.

“I’m very interested in helping young people that don’t
have financial means,” he told Reuters.

CANDLES TO LASERS

“We get most of our knowledge of the world around us
through light,” said the Academy, calling optics “the
physicists’ tool for dealing with light phenomena.”

The winning trio’s research answered such questions as how
candle light differs from laser beams in a CD player and how
light can measure time more accurately than an atomic clock.

Peter Rodgers, editor of Physics World magazine, said the
trio were all worthy of the award.

“All three of them deserve the prize. The general area of
quantum optics and lasers is an area in which there has been a
lot of progress in recent years. This prize reflects well on
progress in that area,” he told Reuters.

Harvard University’s Glauber, who is 80, wins half of the
prize money. He laid the groundwork by establishing the basis
for quantum optics in 1963, providing a theoretical description
of the behavior of light particles.

“He could explain the fundamental differences between hot
sources of light such as light bulbs, with a mixture of
frequencies and phases, and lasers which give a specific
frequency and phase,” it said.

STILL A BABY

Decades later, Hall and Haensch, from the University of
Colorado and the Ludwig-Maximilians-University respectively,
worked on determining the color of the light in atoms and
molecules with extreme precision.

Haensch used even-spaced laser pulses “like the teeth of a
comb or the marks on a ruler” to determine the value of
frequencies and Hall, refined this technique.

Explaining what his and Haensch’s teams of researchers had
accomplished, Hall said: “Most people have been using a radio
dial to scan frequencies to find the right music, we’ve made it
possible to do the same in the optical realm.”

Their findings “made it possible to measure frequencies
with an accuracy of fifteen digits” for use in highly accurate
clocks and in future global positioning systems, said the
Academy.

“It’s like a newborn baby,” said Hall. “You know it has
fantastic potential but it’s much too early to say what it will
achieve.”

(Additional reporting by Stephen Brown, Peter Starck and
Simon Johnson in Stockholm, Philip Blenkinsop in Berlin and
Patricia Reaney in London)




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