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A life-changing phone call

Reflecting on his achievements, Eric Cornell

By James Dacey

Early one morning in October 2001 Eric Cornell’s life was about to change forever; he was about to receive a call from Sweden to inform him that he had been awarded that year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.

The University of Colorado physicist shared the prize with Wolfgang Ketterle and Carl Wieman for the achievement of Bose-Einstein condensation in dilute gases of alkali atoms, and for early fundamental studies of the properties of the condensates.

Nine years later, Cornell is giving a talk here in Glasgow as part of Laserfest, an event to mark the 50th anniversary of these really useful devices, which, of course, helped Cornell to cool his atoms into his condensate.

I just caught up with Cornell in his hotel before the event to find out a bit more about his big discovery and how it has changed his life. “The day we saw [the condensate], we really believed it…it was a very clear signature,” he said.

While Cornell admits to having had an inkling that the discovery could bring the Nobel, he was shocked to get the prize after just six years, and he admits that this has affected the way he does physics. “Before the prize I was a young, slightly brash, not particularly cautious physicist…now when I say something, it’s like ‘oh, Cornell says it’s wrong’.”

We also talked about Cornell’s interests outside of physics, one of which is politics – and he will be closely following events tomorrow as Obama fights to keep his support in the mid-term elections. “I like to follow the game and of course tomorrow is the big game,” he says.

But it seems unlikely that Cornell will make the transition from spectator to player any time soon. “My wife is much more involved in politics than me…I could be a sort of Dennis Thatcher or Michelle Obama.”

One physicist who has made the move is 1997 Nobel-prize winner, Steven Chu, the US secretary of energy. Chu is also talking today at Laserfest about quantum optics, so I’d better go take my seat in the auditorium.

• For more on the 50th anniversary of the laser, check out our video with Tom Baer in which the executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center outlines the many current and future uses of the laser.

• Meanwhile, don’t miss Sidney Perkowitz’s great article From ray-gun to Blu-ray on the impact of the laser on culture, science and everyday life.

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