Carl Edwin Wieman (1951-Present)
Photo by Ken Abbot
Carl Edwin Wieman is one of three physicists credited with the discovery of a fifth phase of matter, for which he was awarded a share of the prestigious Nobel Prize in 2001. The recognition capped a distinguished career that began deep in the Oregon woods in a home without central heating or a television.
Decades of research culminated on June 5, 1995 with the momentous discovery of the so-called “Bose-Einstein condensate.” Until that date, there were believed to be four phases of matter: gas, liquid, solid and plasma. Working on a theory advanced by Albert Einstein in 1925, Wieman and University of Colorado Boulder colleague Eric Cornell were able to bring the temperature of atoms to a temperature barely above absolute zero, or -273.15 degrees Centigrade. They found that the wave functions of the atoms overlapped and behaved in the same manner, creating a super atom — the fifth phase of matter — known as the Bose-Einstein condensate. The discovery spawned a new branch of study in atomic physics.
Wieman was an above-average student but never reached the top of his class. Even when he mastered a subject, he was too stubborn to follow the precise instructions from the teacher. While such a trait slowed his progress in school, it was the driving force behind the kind of critical thinking necessary to achieve scientific breakthroughs. Although his grades were not outstanding, they were strong enough for admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Wieman has said he suspects his selection was assisted by curiosity over his unconventional upbringing in the wilds of Oregon.
Another childhood experience helped shape Wieman’s life. During the summer prior to his freshman year of college, he did hard labor in a lumber mill, assembling stacks of timber. In his words, “This was an exhausting job that gave me a clear taste of what real labor was like. Every now and then when I am fed up with some aspect of my job as an academic, it is useful to reflect on that summer in the mill to remind myself how well off I am compared to all those people who spend their lives doing real work.”
Throughout his undergraduate years at MIT, Wieman discovered he was far more interested in lab research than in sitting in classrooms, and quickly looked for ways to avoid the traditional lectures. He spent countless hours having physics discussions with graduate students, and at one point moved out of his dorm room and lived in his lab. Despite his avoidance of the classroom, or maybe because of it, he became much more passionate about physics than most of his classmates, and achieved superior knowledge of many fundamental concepts such as quantum mechanics.
Wieman headed back to the West Coast for graduate school, deciding to attend Stanford University, where he pursued laser spectroscopy, a field that would play an integral role in his groundbreaking research.
With the advanced degree in hand, Wieman began his teaching career at the University of Michigan where he served as an assistant professor of physics from 1979 to 1984. His independent streak, which would eventually propel him to the Nobel Prize, proved a hindrance in his first faculty position, stifling his progress up the academic ladder. Upon his arrival in Ann Arbor, Wieman joined ongoing experiments utilizing high-tech tools to analyze atomic hydrogen. But he became disillusioned with his colleagues’ research methods and sought and received permission to pursue alternate means of experimentation on his own. Unfortunately, abandoning the hydrogen research resulted in ruffled feelings among longtime faculty members. Unskilled in faculty politics, Wieman struggled throughout his tenure at the school. Despite the internal friction, Wieman’s research attracted an offer from the University of Colorado, which he eagerly accepted.
His career flourished during his years in Boulder. With the support of the Department of Physics, he and his colleagues made quick advancements, obtaining what were considered the most accurate measurements of atomic parity violation in a period in which numerous renowned scientists were pursuing the topic. This research led to using lasers to trap and cool atoms, a necessary step on the path to BEC.
Wieman headed north in 2007 to join the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where he directs the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative.