What's Interesting About AMO Physics

In the spirit of the previous post, I thought I would provide a short list of the reasons why I am happy to be a physicist in the area of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical (AMO) Physics. Like nearly anyone who hung on long enough to get a Ph.D. in some field, I think the area I work in is the coolest thing ever, and here are some of the reasons why:

  • AMO Physics is cool because it's the best field for exploring quantum effects. Pick up a book that deals with fundamental quantum issues-- The Quantum Challenge, say, and look at the experimental demonstrations. Almost all of them come from AMO physics. AMO offers the cleanest demonstrations of all the weird stuff that quantum theory predicts-- BEC, non-locality, superposition states, quantum information-- and that's every bit as cool as the Higgs boson.
  • AMO Physics is cool because it's concrete. At the end of the day, it always comes back to real, physical objects doing real, physical things. There is an atom, or a molecule, or a photon, and you can say exactly what it's doing. Some of the things that atoms and photons do end up being pretty weird, but at the end of the day, you can always bring it back to the concrete behavior of atoms, molecules, and photons.
  • Experimental AMO Physics is cool because it's done on a human scale. Even the biggest AMO labs-- my old group at NIST, the Ketterle lab at MIT, the Cornell group at JILA-- even those labs are based around experiments that fit in a single room (give or take). You don't need thousand-member collaborations, or billion-dollar user facilities-- one person, or a small number of people, can operate an AMO apparatus. Experiments are done on their own schedule, and don't need to wait on other people.
  • AMO Physics has practical applications. Atomic clocks are the best example, forming the basis for the GPS navigation system, and providing essential tools for everything from astronomy to power distribution. There are lots of other AMO-based technologies in use, though. Modern telecommunications is heavily dependent on lasers and optics. Atom-based and optical sensors are in the works for lots of things. Even esoteric things like quantum information have some practical applications, with commercial quantum cryptography systems now available.
  • AMO Physics provides technologies that enable amazing discoveries in lots of other fields. AMO-based experiments at low energy-- parity non-conservation tests, EDM searches, spectroscopic tests of physical constants, g-2 measurements-- put limits on physics beyond the Standard Model that are competitive with if not better than accelerator-based measurements. Femtosecond X-ray lasers allow studies of the dynamics of chemistry on the single-molecule scale. AMO-based methods of manipulating particles allow groundbreaking studies of biophysics. Precision measurement techniques based in AMO Physics (chiefly laser spectroscopy) have the potential to revolutionize a number of fields.

So, that's (part of) why I'm happy to do what I do. What makes you happy to be in your field?

(We're currently in the middle of a fundraising drive for DonorsChoose. My goal for the challenge amounts to about $3 per daily page view on the blog. If you feel that you have gotten $3 worth of entertainment or information from this post, please consider visiting my challenge entry and making a donation.)


More like this

The Dave Bacon post linked earlier today is actually the beginning of a plug for Doug Natelson's list of hot topics and controversies in condensed matter and nanoscale science. As was suggested in a recent comment, now that a nonzero number of condensed matter and nano people are (apparently)…
That's the title of my slightly insane talk at the DAMOP (Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics of the American Physical Society) conference a couple of weeks ago, summarizing current topics of interest in Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics. I'll re-embed the slides at the end of…
If you go by physics-related stories in the mass media, you'd probably get the impression that about 90% of physicists work at the Large Hadron Collider or some other big accelerator lab. The other 10% would be dominated by people working on foundational questions in quantum mechanics-- Bell tests…
Every day, a handful of physics news items pass through my RSS feeds, and every few days, one of them looks interesting enough that I check the little box to keep it unread, so I can comment on it later (I don't blog from work if I can avoid it). Of course, most of the time, I don't get around to…

I have a low-tension span for reading, but once I came across the word "Quantum Issues" I couldn't help but say that any thing that has to do with quantum Physics I take a sincere interest in. I love to talk about the subject.

I used to be in AMO physics, back in grad school. It was ok. Course my atoms had mass and charge and nothing else!! We were just weighing them in a Penning Trap. So I felt sort of an outsider in terms of AMO, always clutching at a tenuous grasp of what was a good quantum number when. I was mostly doing careful engineering. (But oh boy did we get a tongue-lashing from G. Gabrielse when we referred to one of his developments as "clever engineering". Dude, Maxwell worked out his equations long ago; what we do with them now is engineering.)

And I'm quite sure all our cryogenic work was harder than the "real" AMO guys upstairs with their lasers. As my lab-mate Eric said, "Next experiment I work on is going to be at room temperature, low magnetic field, and ambient pressure." Well, he got two out of three right.

So now I do systems engineering for orbiting telescopes. Go figure.

I remember the thrill when I 'got' laser cooling. I mean, how can you shine a laser at something and not heat it.

Also, what are the chances of AMO or an AMO/particles cross-over being the Next Big Thing? I'm thinking of colliding condensates with particles or with eack other.

What makes you happy to be in your field?

Okay, I'll play. I'll even play two times.

Microwave: Microwave and millimeter waves have technical definitions dependent on wavelength, yes, but those numbers are what they are largely because that is the regime where the size of the components are on the same scale as, or are large than, the electromagnetic waves they are supposed to affect.

Without going into gobsmackingly boring technical definitions, I will just say that this lends itself to an absolutely dizzying array of techniques. Some of these are aesthetically pleasing to untrained eyes, like little arrays of log antennas. Some are aesthetically pleasing only to trained eyes, such as the notion that you can make a meaningful and useful circuit out of little more than a careful pattern of conductive ink on a flat dielectric substrate.

And the practical problems that result after we're wowed by the sheer coolness of the techniques are usually damned difficult, so we're always operating at the edge of the technical field.

Systems: Systems is cool, because you never get bored. Systems, by definition, pretty much requires you to know a little bit about everything, and forces you to think about-- to actively look for-- instances where one piece of a system (say, digital) is adversely affecting another piece of a system (say, microwave) in a completely different area.

You also never really understand what and why your hardware is doing what it's doing until you've had a hand in writing the specifications for it, and its nearest neighbors, and the larger thing that it's a part of.

I feel like playing a third time for my computer science stuff, but at this point, that's more of a hobby, than a field.

By John Novak (not verified) on 09 Oct 2008 #permalink

I also never really understand what and why your hardware is doing what it's doing until you've had a hand in writing the specifications for it.If i know that i will try to give my suggestion.Thanks.

Sreevysh Corp

I'm happy to be in my field (Software Engineering) because I get to take a vague idea or algorithm and turn it into software that solves a problem. I still feel like King Kong on speed every time I hit that moment where everything I wrote is doing exactly what I want and expect.

By Garret Reece (not verified) on 10 Oct 2008 #permalink

Just so you all know, Novak's hobby is something he has a Master's in. If find this highly amusing.

Sure, but I don't actually use it every day, or even every week, except in the context of being able to productively talk to people in our software engineering groups.

Put me in a software jobs, and I'd probably have eight surplus thumbs for several months.

By John Novak (not verified) on 10 Oct 2008 #permalink

Your point 2 depends on what you mean by "concrete". Your point 1 is in tension with it, as you admit. It's not the atoms that are concrete, it's the large-number accretions of them, the experimental apparatus as a whole; the macroscopic detectors etc. That's what the Copenhagen interpretation says you should take seriously. The stuff inside the apparatus has no properties unless and until they are measured by the apparatus, on pain of contradiction, otherwise known as weirdness.

If you have to be concrete about what's inside the experimental apparatus, surely there is a quantized field that has certain discrete structures, not individual atoms, whether quantized or not? Of course, "large-number accretions of atoms" ought to be worked out in terms of quantized fields as well (moving the quantum description up instead of moving the classical description down), but Physics seems to have put the project of justifying its love of quantized fields as its best theory on slow cooker. The introduction of Feynman&Hibbs says we should go there, but it's too hard, I guess.

My only beef is with the fact that you labeled quantum information as 'esoteric.' If it were esoteric, companies such as IBM, Microsoft, Booz-Allen, and others wouldn't waste investor money on it.