Light is the fastest moving thing that we know of–and Dr. Lene Hau has developed a way to slow it down and actually stop its motion all together.
Educated in theoretical physics, Hau made the change to experimental physics after earning her doctorate and moving to the United States to work at the Rowland Institute of Science in Boston. One of her first projects was the creation of a new state of matter–a Bose-Einstein Condensate. By extremely cooling atoms to a few millionths of a degree above absolute zero these atoms lose their individual identities and blend together and behave like a single “superatom.” Hau and her co-workers created one of the first Bose-Einstein Condensates in 1997 by using a series of manipulated lasers to cool a gas of sodium atoms.
After creating this new state of matter, Hau questioned the potential applications of this new technology and started to examine what would happen if you passed light through the condensate. Careful use of lasers allowed a pulse of laser light to pass through a cloud of the extremely cooled atoms and what they observed was the slowing of the light pulse. Publishing her results when she was able to slow the pulse down to the speed of a bicycle, around 35 miles per hour, in 1999 her group was actually able to stop the light pulse inside the cloud and hold it there for brief periods of time.
With this success she was hired at Harvard University as a professor of physics where she teaches courses and directs the work of the Hau Lab. Continuing her work with condensates and light her team was able to transfer a qubit of light to a matter wave and back into light again. This work has large potential impact on the work of those trying to develop quantum computers–a new field of computer design that uses quantum-mechanical phenomena to perform operations on data.
A highly sought after speaker, Hau’s current research has branched out to include the novel interactions between ultracold atoms and nanoscopic scale systems.
Written by Angela Goad