TranscriptQuestion: Have you ever been completely surprised by an outcome of your research?
William Phillips: All the time. In fact, it’s one of the greatest things about being a scientist is that you’re continually surprised. Nature is so much more clever than we are that we never understand the secrets that nature has to offer, but little by little we learn more and more. But every time we got into the laboratory, we’re surprised.
I work in an area of physics, atomic physics, where the basic principles as far as we know, the basic principles were pretty much understood in the 1930’s. Maybe some details were worked out in the 40’s and 50’s, but we are still surprised every day by the results of these things. So, in spite of the fact that some people might say, well, there’s nothing new, we’re surprised every day and the things we learned were the things that nobody imagined that things would work this way.
So for example, let’s go back to this example about laser cooling. Everybody thought they understood how cold you could get things using laser cooling. And the problem was a simple enough problem, you can write down the proof in a few minutes as to how cold it is possible to get something. And we got it eventually 200 times colder for one particular atom then the theory said it was possible. Why? Well, because the situation was a little bit more complicated.
Remember I said that physicists liked to make a problem really simple. That’s the physicist’s way of looking at a problem. Well, Einstein once said, “A problem should be made a simple as possible, but no simpler.” And sometimes you make a mistake, and you’ll leave out some really important stuff, usually when you do that it makes things worse. This was a case where putting in the complications made things work better. Nobody would have guessed that that was going to happen. I can’t imagine anybody sitting down and thinking. “Okay, we’re going to figure out how laser cooling works and coming up with what actually happens.” We had to do the experiments first. Nature showed us what was going to happen, and then clever people figured out what was really going on. These kinds of surprises happen to us all the time.
Recorded on June 4, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman