Nobel Prize winner visits Geneseo

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and Nobel Prize winner Dr. Wolfgang Ketterle presented his discoveries in atomic physics to Geneseo on Wednesday Jan. 27.

Ketterle was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his breakthroughs in laser cooling techniques and his analysis of neutral particles at nanokelvin temperatures—near absolute zero. The phenomenon he observed in those below-freezing atoms—the Bose-Einstein Condensate—had been previously theorized, but left unproven by scientists Albert Einstein and Satyendra Nath Bose.

“When you discover something beautiful and never before seen, you get attention,” Ketterle said. “But when you discover something predicted by Einstein, you get even more attention.”

Despite his busy schedule, the German physicist went on to express the pride he takes in delegating time every year to share the findings he’s made throughout his career with the young and curious minds of undergraduates and aspiring physicists.

“I also try to visit colleges where they do not do competitive research in my field,” Ketterle said. “I just feel good about it; I enjoy it to carry the excitement of science to other places and to interact with other students outside of MIT.”

Thanks to a personal relationship shared between Geneseo’s department chair and professor of physics Charlie Freeman and the acclaimed atomic physicist, Freeman was able to reach Ketterle and express his interest in planning a day for him to come present the physicist’s discoveries with his students at Geneseo.

“[Freeman] worked with me at the lab at MIT and after a gap of communication—about 20 years later—I learned that he had became the chair of the physics department [at Geneseo].”

As an undergrad at MIT, Freeman was assigned to join Kettlerle in his first-ever undergraduate program for research.

“It’s nice to see an undergraduate from my early program again,” Ketterle said. “Students have a special place in my mind because they were in my life at a relatively early point in my career.”

During an interview, Ketterle mentioned how he wishes to pass on wisdom to those students who may be struggling to find their ground during these early years of academia as undergraduates.

“In every area—in science, technology, humanities and the arts—we need people to move forward. For every area, there is a need for the best people. If you feel you are one of the best, you don’t need an excuse—go for it,” he said. “Regardless of whether or not you think you will make a bigger impact, the world needs you. You’re not wasting your talent by pursuing that field.”

Ketterle emphasized the chief role that commitment played for him after feeling divided at several crossroads in his career path. He agreed that, on a general level, there comes a time when it is better to make a tentative commitment and see where it takes you rather than to continue trying and sampling various fields of interest.

“If you make a decision, the decision—and any decision—is based on limited knowledge; but it’s the best decision you can make at that time and you live with that decision and you execute that decision with a passion and, only then, after fully emerging yourself into that experience, should you revise your decision.”

Currently, Ketterle leads ongoing research with a team of graduate students at MIT, applying his vast knowledge of laser spectroscopy in hopes of contributing more to new-found avenues of research in atomic physics.u