He’s Seen Colder

Photo of professor speaking to class, gesturing with both hands.

Learn about Atomic, Molecular, and Optical physics from Nobel laureate Wolfgang Ketterle.

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Imagine you are an undergraduate studying physics, and you dream of doing research making fundamental discoveries about matter and energy. But you have no way of penetrating the mystery of how this research takes places, or what exactly is needed to get to this level of understanding.

You don’t, that is, until now.

OCW has just published two MIT graduate-level courses providing a full academic year’s worth of study in AMO (Atomic, Molecular, and Optical) physics: 8.421 Atomic and Optical Physics I and 8.422 Atomic and Optical Physics II.

Both courses have full video lectures, extensive reading lists, and assignments.

The courses are taught by Professor Wolfgang Ketterle, who, along with other MIT researchers and researchers from Harvard University, is a member of the group known as the Center for Ultracold Atoms.

As Professor Ketterle explains in his introductory lectures, students who take these courses “will be able to talk about atoms and light as experts at the most profound level.”

AMO physics is a fascinating field. Long ago (i.e., in the 1950s and 1960s), research focused on individual particles, especially two-particle collisions. The field was thought to have played itself out, reaching the limits of what was discoverable. But advances in technology and bold new ideas opened the field to undreamed-of possibilities in the decades following.

More powerful lasers, with extremely short pulses (down to the attosecond—one quintillionth of a second) have enabled researchers to control single photons and to cool atoms until their temperature registers in terms of the picokelvin (one trillionth of a Kelvin).

Researchers first explored “few body” physics, entanglement, and quantum information science, then advanced to “many body” physics, quantum gases, and ultracold states, barely above absolute zero.

Breakthrough after breakthrough has arisen, where no one had predicted. As a result, a number of Nobel prizes have been awarded in AMO physics—in 1997, 2001, 2005, 2012—for very recent discoveries, in contrast to the usual gap of decades between discovery and award.

Although he does not mention it in his introductory lectures, Professor Ketterle was one of the Nobel recipients in 2001 for demonstrating the ultracold form of matter known as the Bose-Einstein Condensate, in which atoms condense into a single quantum state.

On his This Course at MIT page, Professor Ketterle discusses how he uses clicker questions, how he’s been thinking about web-based problem sets, why he uses a tablet computer instead of a blackboard when lecturing, and more.

So think of it—the opportunity to learn from a leading researcher of cutting-edge science for an entire academic year, at your leisure and pace—all for free on OCW.

Who would have predicted that?

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