Newton Lecture 2014: Professor Deborah Jin explains her pioneering work in the field of ultra-cold gases

15 October 2014

The lecture at the IOP’s London centre on 14 October was given by Prof. Jin in her capacity as the 2014 winner of the Isaac Newton Medal and Prize – the Institute’s highest accolade.

Professor Deborah Jin

Prof. Jin, of the University of Colorado, JILA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is at the forefront of research into the physics of atomic gases at ultra-cold temperatures. In 2003, her team was the first to produce a fermionic condensate – an atomic configuration similar to a Bose-Einstein condensate, but made of fermions instead of bosons.

Following an introduction from Prof. Ed Hinds of Imperial College London, Prof. Jin told the assembled audience at the IOP how, at extreme low temperatures, novel phenomena emerge. By super-cooling clouds of atoms to a small fraction of a degree above absolute zero (some 10-7 kelvin), she said, quantum-mechanical effects begin to dominate the system, leading to fascinating and unpredictable behaviour, such as superfluidity and superconductivity.

The primary challenge in creating a fermionic condensate, Prof. Jin explained, is that fermions are prohibited (by way of the Pauli exclusion principle) to occupy the same quantum state as one another. However, by subjecting them to a combination of extremely low temperatures and a strong magnetic field, Prof, Jin’s group has been able to induce a phenomenon akin to Cooper pairing, whereby atoms form correlated pairs, which are then able to undergo Fermi condensation.

While research into ultra-cold Fermi gases could have a range of practical applications, from precision measurements in atomic clocks and GPS devices to possible uses in quantum computing, Prof. Jin told the audience that her focus was firmly on the insight into fundamental physics that the subject affords. Owing to the high precision with which her team is able to control and manipulate these ultra-cold gases, they function as an ideal model system for probing deep questions about the quantum-mechanical behaviour of more complex systems.

The talk concluded with a Q&A session, in which Prof. Jin answered a range of questions, including about possible applications for cutting-edge navigational technology, and the common ground between her research and high-energy nuclear physics.

A full list of previous Newton Medal winners, along with Prof. Jin’s full citation, can be viewed on the IOP’s Newton Medal page.