Issue: January 2013
Tags: Tom Clark, Teri Ripetto, Susan Barnes-Gelt, Robert White, Nora Pykkonen, Michael Hancock, Masai Ujiri, Karin Sheldon, Jonathan Vaughters, Jim Schanel, Jim Deters, Harvey Steinberg, Dede de Percin, David Wineland, Daniel Junge, Christopher Hill, Charles Burrell, Alan Salazar
Ever wish you could ask the mayor about urban development, or a battalion chief about fighting the Waldo Canyon fire, or a Nobel Prize winner about the nature of reality? In our first-ever Interview Issue, we asked 18 of the city’s brightest, most outspoken leaders and personalities those questions, and many more. Turn the page to hear them speak out—in their own words.
The Nobel Prize–winning physicist from Boulder’s National Institute of Standards and Technology on quantum physics, superaccurate clocks, and the universe’s most profound mysteries. Interview by Geoff Van Dyke
Congratulations on the Nobel. You’re headed to Stockholm in December 2012? That should be a remarkable experience.
Well, thank you. It won’t happen many times, I’m sure.
Tell me a bit about your childhood. When did you first develop a passion for physics?
I grew up in Sacramento, California, and my dad was a civil engineer. He would play math games with me when I was little, and from an early age I liked math. I took my first physics class as a senior, and my thought was that physics was essentially some relatively simple math that could describe things around us, and I really liked that.
Could you describe what quantum physics is, in the broadest sense?
Part of the intriguing thing that makes this interesting for physicists and the layperson is that in the subatomic world you encounter very nonintuitive things, things that you don’t experience in your ordinary experience. I’ll give you an example: In our work we use charged atoms—ions—and we’re able to hold them nominally in one place. Think of the ion as a marble in a bowl. In our case, these charged atoms can roll back and forth in this bowl, so to speak. And one demonstration we do, which emphasizes the weird world in which we live, is we can take our atomic marble and at some instant in time it can be both on the left side and the right side of the bowl. So it’s not left or right; it’s left and right at the same time. I mean, this makes no sense to us in our normal everyday experience.
That’s pretty mind-blowing. And there’s another sort of bizarre notion to me in quantum physics: this idea that things don’t exist until we observe them.
Well, yes, physicists have been struggling with this ever since the ’30s, and we still struggle with it. It’s commonly called the measurement problem, and it gets at a very fundamental question: What’s reality?
So is the fact that the smartest minds in the world can’t resolve these issues a function of the human brain not being wired to understand these things?
Maybe. To me, this is one of the really profound mysteries that still exists. And I would say we don’t know the answer, but somehow we can get by in the world.
Your work involves quantum computers and superaccurate clocks. I read that over all of cosmic time, 13.7 billion years, your clock would be off by about five seconds.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology won’t like it if I say “accuracy.” There’s a specific definition of the word, but loosely speaking, it means we control the environmental effects on this clock better than any other.
So our clock would actually gain or lose one second in about 3.7 billion years.
What about the wristwatch I’m wearing now?
If it’s a quartz crystal, the clock we have would be about 10 billion times more accurate.
There’s that word again, “accurate.”
Well, accuracy is tied to the definition of a second, which is tied to oscillations in seizing a particular atom, but we don’t want to go there.
Agreed. Last question: When I was in college, there were parking spots reserved for the Nobel laureates. Now that you’ve gotten the Nobel, do you get a special parking spot?
I know at most campuses it’s a real problem, but I don’t have to worry about that. There’s plenty of parking here, so I don’t need a special spot.