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Trio Wins Nobel Prize in Physics for Optics Research


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Phone calls from Sweden woke up two American scientists this morning: John Hall and Roy Glauber. They will share the Nobel Prize for physics with a German researcher, Theodore Hansch. All three worked in various ways on the physics of light. The work has a handful of practical applications but not many, as NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


Roy Glauber got the phone call early this morning. When we reached him at 7:30, he was still wearing his pajamas, and the neighbors had just brought over a cup of coffee. Glauber is 80 years old and a physicist at Harvard. He's sharing the prize for his theoretical work--pencil and paper equations--done in the 1960s that formed the basis of something called quantum optics. His work explained, after the laser was invented, how it was the darn thing actually worked in full detail, and it provide a fundamental framework for how particles of light interact with atoms and molecules.

Dr. ROY GLAUBER (Harvard University): Well, there were a few ah-ha moments, but it was done over a period of time, and these realizations dawn in on one somewhat gradually. But, yes, there were a few ah-ha moments, and I'd be hard-put to describe them because they're mathematical.

KESTENBAUM: I see. Any idea what you're going to do with the money?

Dr. GLAUBER: I don't even know what the money is. No one has told me, and I haven't heard a word.

KESTENBAUM: According to this you, get one-half of $1.3 million.

Dr. GLAUBER: My heavens, that's the first word I've heard. Very interesting. (Laughs) The answer to your question is I haven't the faintest idea.

KESTENBAUM: Also this morning on Davidson Place in Boulder, Colorado, an excited dog chased a reporter off the front lawn. The house is the home of physicist John Hall. Hall is 71 years old and will share the other half of the Nobel Prize with German Theodore Hansch for their experimental work. Working together and sometimes in competition, they perfected a way to measure colors or frequencies of light very, very accurately, to 15 decimal places.

Mr. JOHN HALL (University of Colorado): Think there were maybe eight of us, and we were supported for 10 years building this fantastic dinosaur, even though it was the first one on the Earth, to measure optical frequencies.

KESTENBAUM: Eventually Hall's dinosaur, a fancy optical laser device, helped redefine how distance itself is measured. Once upon a time a meter was defined as 1/10,000,000th of the distance from the North Pole to the equator, passing through Paris. Then it was a metal bar with two notches in it. Today the meter is pegged instead to the speed of light. The work of Hansch and Hall made that possible. It also allowed physicists to measure the internal structure of the atom with new precision. Hall says he never expected to win the Nobel Prize.

Mr. HALL: No. No. I've been even surprised that I would be paid to do such interesting things. In earlier times the scientists were independently wealthy, and they did what they thought was the most interesting thing to do and they paid for it themself. And I've been hugely lucky to be employed by NIST for 43 years or something.

KESTENBAUM: NIST is a government agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Hall also works at the University of Colorado.

If all this sounds a little esoteric, it is right now. Dan Kleppner is a physicist at MIT. He brought the coffee over to Roy Glauber's house this morning.

Professor DAN KLEPPNER (MIT): The applications for revolutionary devices come later because one hasn't had time to think about the possibilities. I'm sure that there will be very important applications for these devices. They're so powerful; they open up so many new areas. We're just starting to look.

KESTENBAUM: This year's prize is also a reminder that physics has been around for centuries. The easy questions were answered long ago. David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.