Unfortunately, just a few months before they published their results, a research team at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center beat them to it, demonstrating exactly what Chu and Commins were hoping to discover. Still, it did not escape the folks at Bell Laboratories that Chu and Commins, using a tabletop apparatus, had very nearly scooped a rival team that was working on one of the most advanced pieces of scientific apparatus on earth, and in 1983 Bell made Chu the head of its quantum-electronics research department, in Holmdel, New Jersey.
There he began his investigations into cooling atoms. Physicist William Phillips of the National Insitute of Standards and Technology had met Chu at several conferences and kept track of his progress from afar, and he remembers chatting with him at a conference lunch break about the potential of laser cooling to grab a neutral (non-ion) atom. Then began a friendly rivalry. Phillips and his colleagues worked out their breakthroughs at NIST. Another physicist, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, contributed experiments from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Chu made his discoveries at Bell Labs and later at Stanford University. His eureka moment came during a heavy New Jersey snowstorm. Everybody had left the lab except him (a rarity at Bell, where people tended to stick around and talk science at all hours), and he suddenly realized that instead of grabbing an atom and then cooling it down, you could cool the atom and then grab it. In 1997 all three men shared the Nobel Prize in Physics.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.