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William Phillips is a fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute of the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. In 1997, he was jointly awarded the[…]

One of the greatest things about being a scientist is that you’re continually surprised.

Question: Have you ever been completely surprised by an rnoutcome of your research?

rnWilliam Phillips: All the time.  In fact, it’s one of the greatest rnthings about being a scientist is that you’re continually surprised.  rnNature is so much more clever than we are that we never understand the rnsecrets that nature has to offer, but little by little we learn more andrn more.  But every time we got into the laboratory, we’re surprised. 
rnI work in an area of physics, atomic physics, where the basic principlesrn as far as we know, the basic principles were pretty much understood in rnthe 1930’s.  Maybe some details were worked out in the 40’s and 50’s, rnbut we are still surprised every day by the results of these things.  rnSo, in spite of the fact that some people might say, well, there’s rnnothing new, we’re surprised every day and the things we learned were rnthe things that nobody imagined that things would work this way. 
rnSo for example, let’s go back to this example about laser cooling.  rnEverybody thought they understood how cold you could get things using rnlaser cooling.  And the problem was a simple enough problem, you can rnwrite down the proof in a few minutes as to how cold it is possible to rnget something.  And we got it eventually 200 times colder for one rnparticular atom then the theory said it was possible.  Why?  Well, rnbecause the situation was a little bit more complicated. 
rnRemember I said that physicists liked to make a problem really simple.  rnThat’s the physicist’s way of looking at a problem.  Well, Einstein oncern said, “A problem should be made a simple as possible, but no simpler.” rn And sometimes you make a mistake, and you’ll leave out some really rnimportant stuff, usually when you do that it makes things worse.  This rnwas a case where putting in the complications made things work better.  rnNobody would have guessed that that was going to happen.  I can’t rnimagine anybody sitting down and thinking.  “Okay, we’re going to figurern out how laser cooling works and coming up with what actually happens.” rn We had to do the experiments first.  Nature showed us what was going torn happen, and then clever people figured out what was really going on.  rnThese kinds of surprises happen to us all the time.
rnRecorded on June 4, 2010
rnInterviewed by Jessica Liebman