Three U.S.-based researchers won the Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for creating a new state of matter -- a kind of super-cold gas that could help scientists build tinier electronics, faster computers and ultra-precise clocks and measuring instruments.
The $943,000 award will be shared by Americans Eric A. Cornell, 39, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo., and Carl E. Wieman, 50, of the University of Colorado in Boulder, and a German, Wolfgang Ketterle, 43, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 1995, the Colorado researchers -- using ordinary lasers from compact disc players and a magnetic field -- and Ketterle made gases so cold that multiple atoms began to behave as one, or "sing in unison," as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences put it.
The atoms formed what scientists call a Bose-Einstein condensate, a state of matter different from solids, liquids or gases. The existence of such a state of matter was first theorized by Albert Einstein.
Ketterle, who worked independently of the others, also showed that the condensates could be made to give off pulses of matter -- a primitive sort of atom laser that emits matter instead of light.
Scientists say the condensates and atom lasers could lead to smaller and faster electronic circuits laid down by tiny beams of atoms. Other potential applications include extremely accurate clocks and distance-measuring devices. The technology could also be used in quantum computers, which are expected to be much faster than today's computers.
New field opened
The advances opened "a new field to play in," said Oxford University physicist Keith Burnett. He said after the men's findings, more than 20 labs around the world jumped into the field.
Bose-Einstein condensates take their name from the Indian physicist S.N. Bose and Einstein. In the early 1920s, Bose wrote a paper about light particles and sent it to Einstein, who expanded on the ideas. Einstein predicted that if atoms in a gas crowd together enough and move slowly enough, they will produce a new state of matter.
Einstein expressed doubt that a condensate could be demonstrated. It took 70 years -- and several technological advances -- to show that it could.
The prize-winning scientists cooled particles down to nearly absolute zero, which is about minus 460 degree.
Cornell was surprised to be honored so quickly.
"I hoped that one day this might happen, but I was really thinking along the lines of 20 years later and not six," said Cornell, who also works with Wieman at JILA, a research institute in Boulder formerly known as the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics.
Wieman said: "I discovered that I'm not nearly as excited about winning the prize as I was about seeing the Bose-Einstein condensate for the first time."
This year's Nobels began Monday with the naming of three winners in medicine. American Leland H. Hartwell and Britons Tim Hunt and Paul Nurse were cited for discoveries about cell division that could lead to new cancer treatments.
The chemistry and economics prizes will be awarded Wednesday and the literature prize on Thursday. On Friday, the winner of the peace prize will be announced in Oslo, Norway.