Expanding Our Understanding of Nature

Carl Wieman
posted: 3/26/2019
Hertz Staff
listed in Spotlight

Spotlight on Carl Wieman

In 1995, Hertz Fellow (’73) Carl Wieman and Eric Cornell unleashed a new era in scientific discovery when they proved a theory that had tantalized scientists for most of a century.

Decades earlier, physicists Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein predicted that under the right conditions, some atoms would start vibrating in unison, condensing into what The New York Times called "superatoms” — bizarre states of matter “straddling the gulf” between the everyday and quantum worlds. Proving the theory had eluded scientists for over 70 years. Then Wieman and Cornell created this unique state of matter in their lab at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Producing this bizarre state of matter – called Bose-Einstein Condensate – was such an important breakthrough that only six years later, with Wolfgang Ketterle, they received the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics. Because of this discovery, scientists now have a powerful new quantum “tool” for conducting remarkable new research – a tool that gives us the powerful ability to model the peculiarities of a black hole in a laboratory, or to catch a light beam racing at 70 million mph and hold it suspended in space.

Today, Wieman is known not only for this discovery, but his leadership changing how college students learn science. “The purpose of science education,” Wieman once wrote, “is no longer simply to train that tiny fraction of the population who will become the next generation of scientists. We need a more scientifically literate populace to address the global challenges that humanity now faces and that only science can explain and possibly mitigate.” Based on decades of his own research and others showing that students learn better when they can experience the concepts themselves — and instructors check their understanding in real time — he developed tools like PhET (formerly Physics Education Technology) to simulate science concepts for learning. He also redesigned the science curriculum at the University of British Columbia, and brought his education research to Stanford University, where today he holds a joint appointment in the Department of Physics and the Graduate School of Education.