Physicists Get Genius Grants
CHICAGO, Sept. 23, 2008 -- An optical physicist who demonstrated that power can be transmitted wirelessly, a physicist who explores the mysterious behavior of quantum systems, and an astrophysicist working to improve the spatial resolution and precision of instruments used to peer at regions of the central galaxy are among the 25 recipients of 2008 MacArthur Fellowships, five-year "genius grants" of $500,000 in unrestricted funds each, announced Tuesday by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Because there is no application process for the MacArthur Fellowships and nominations are accepted only from invited nominators who serve anonymously, receiving the phone call that they have received a genius grant often comes as a "bolt out of the blue" for the recipients.
MacArthur recipient Marin Soljacic, an assistant professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a theoretical physicist whose work on electromagnetic waves is important for understanding fundamental principles of optical physics and for the development of devices such as switches for optical computers and wireless power transmitters.
First, he analyzed the conditions under which optical fields can maintain their stability in optically nonlinear media -- so-called "Necklace Solitons." Then he determined that sound waves propagating through linear photonic crystals can exert profound effects on the frequency of light passing through the crystals, even though the speed of the sound waves is many orders of magnitude slower than the speed of the light.
He invented a single photon optical switch, proving that when an object having electromagnetically induced transparency (e.g., in a specially prepared Bose-Einstein condensate) is placed within a photonic crystal, a single photon can determine whether it will transmit or reflect a light beam passing perpendicularly through the waveguide. Such a switch in an optical computer is a major breakthrough and is analogous to the transistor in contemporary microprocessors.
He and his colleagues also recently demonstrated both theoretically and experimentally that strongly coupled magnetic resonances can wirelessly transfer power over a few meters -- an advance that could be used to wirelessly recharge laptop computers, cell phones and other devices.
Soljacic said the MacArthur's "no strings attached" funding will allow him to work on innovative research that might not be funded by traditional sources.
"When you have something that you believe is a really good idea, but it's pretty risky, some people might think it's too far out and it's much harder to get funding," he said.
2008 MacArthur Fellow Alexei Kitaev, a professor of theoretical physics and computer science at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), is a physicist who explores the mysterious behavior of quantum systems and their implications for developing practical applications, such as quantum computers. He has made important theoretical contributions to a wide array of topics within condensed-matter physics, including quasicrystals and quantum chaos.
More recently, Kitaev has devoted considerable attention to the use of quantum physics for performing computation. Upon learning of the first algorithm for factoring numbers (an important aspect of cryptography) with quantum computers, he independently developed an alternative approach using "phase estimation," a solution that generalizes to an even wider range of calculations.
Though his work is focused mainly at the conceptual level, he also participates in "hands-on" efforts to develop working quantum computers.
Kitaev says he was "very surprised" when he received the call from Daniel Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, telling him of his selection for the award. "I didn't know what the award was at first," admits Kitaev, who was born and educated in Russia. "But then I looked up the names of people who have previously received a MacArthur award, and saw that they are very good scientists. I am excited and honored to be in the same group with them."
Astrophysicist Andrea Ghez, a professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA, uses novel, ground-based telescopic techniques to identify thousands of new star systems and illuminate the role of supermassive black holes in the evolution of galaxies. In 1998, Ghez answered one of astronomy's most important questions, showing that a monstrous black hole resides at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, some 26,000 light-years away, with a mass more than 3 million times that of the sun. The question had been a subject of raging debate among astronomers for more than a quarter of a century.
Black holes are collapsed stars so dense that nothing can escape their gravitational pull, not even light. Black holes cannot be seen directly, but their influence on nearby stars is visible and provides a signature, Ghez said.
In 2000, Ghez and colleagues reported that for the first time astronomers had seen stars accelerate around a supermassive black hole. Their research demonstrated that three stars had accelerated by more than 250,000 miles per hour a year as they orbited the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. They also reported, based on five years of measurements, that the star closest to the black hole had turned a corner in its orbit.
In 2005, Ghez and her colleagues took the first clear picture of the center of the Milky Way, including the area surrounding the black hole, using laser virtual star technology at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.
"Everything is much clearer now," Ghez had said. "We used a laser to improve the telescope's vision -- a spectacular breakthrough that will help us understand the black hole's environment and physics. It's like getting Lasik surgery for the eyes and will revolutionize what we can do in astronomy."
Astronomers are used to working with images that are blurred by the Earth's atmosphere. But the laser virtual star, launched from the Keck telescope, corrects the atmosphere's distortions and clears up the picture. The technology, which is known as Laser Guide Star adaptive optics, will lead to important advances in the study of planets both inside and outside our solar system, as well as of galaxies, black holes, and how the universe formed and evolved, Ghez said.
"We have worked for years on techniques for beating the distortions in the atmosphere and producing high-resolution images," she said of the research. "We are pleased to report the first Laser Guide Star adaptive optics observations of the center of our galaxy."
The research was conducted using the Keck II Telescope, the world's first 10-meter telescope with a laser on it. Laser Guide Star allows astronomers to generate an artificial bright star exactly where they want it, which reveals the atmosphere's distortions.
In 2006, Ghez and UCLA astronomy graduate student Jessica Lu reported that they could determine, for the first time, the orbits of massive young stars located a few light-months from the Milky Way's enormous black hole -- stars that hold an imprint of how they were born. The origin of young stars at the center of our galaxy has puzzled astronomers, but the orbits may be the key to unlocking the mystery. The astronomers again used laser virtual star technology at the W.M. Keck Observatory in their research.
"I am really thrilled," Ghez said of the MacArthur Fellowship. "I will be able to take more risks with my research than I could before. The current shortage of federal funding for science can lead scientists to take fewer risks, but my selection as a MacArthur Fellow will allow me to pursue new ideas and take risks."
Also receiving a 2008 genius grant is astronomer Adam Riess, a professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, who was a leading contributor to the finding that the universe is not only expanding, but its rate of expansion is accelerating. He is now designing experiments and devices to detect and measure dark matter.
"It is a tremendous honor to be recognized by the MacArthur Fellowship," Riess said. "I am very fortunate to work with talented people and with one of the most advanced scientific tools in the Hubble Space Telescope."
For more information, visit: www.macfound.org
- adaptive optics
- Optical components or assemblies whose performance is monitored and controlled so as to compensate for aberrations, static or dynamic perturbations such as thermal, mechanical and acoustical disturbances, or to adapt to changing conditions, needs or missions. The most familiar example is the "rubber mirror,'' whose surface shape, and thus reflective qualities, can be controlled by electromechanical means. See also active optics; phase conjugation.
- The scientific observation of celestial radiation that has reached the vicinity of Earth, and the interpretation of these observations to determine the characteristics of the extraterrestrial bodies and phenomena that have emitted the radiation.
- black hole
- A hypothetical cosmic phenomenon in which the mass and density of a star pass a critical point so that the escape velocity matches the speed of light. For this reason, light and matter are "captured'' by the black hole and cannot escape.
- laser guide star
- An artificial star used to aid in adaptive optics imaging of the sky. The guide star is provided from a telescope system on the ground and is directed into the imaged region. The wavefront distortions are accounted for by transmission of the source through the atmosphere.
- Pertaining to optics and the phenomena of light.
- A quantum of electromagnetic energy of a single mode; i.e., a single wavelength, direction and polarization. As a unit of energy, each photon equals hn, h being Planck's constant and n, the frequency of the propagating electromagnetic wave. The momentum of the photon in the direction of propagation is hn/c, c being the speed of light.
- The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
- Smallest amount into which the energy of a wave can be divided. The quantum is proportional to the frequency of the wave. See photon.
- An afocal optical device made up of lenses or mirrors, usually with a magnification greater than unity, that renders distant objects more distinct, by enlarging their images on the retina.
MORE FROM PHOTONICS MEDIA