American physicist who, with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William D.
Phillips, was awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize for Physics for their independent,
pioneering research in cooling and trapping atoms using laser light.
In 1985 Chu and his coworkers used an array of intersecting laser beams
to create an effect they called "optical molasses," in which
the speed of target atoms was reduced from about 4,000 kilometres per
hour to about one kilometre per hour, as if the atoms were moving through
thick molasses. The temperature of the slowed atoms approached absolute
zero (-273.15 C, or -459.67 F). Chu and his colleagues also developed
an atomic trap using lasers and magnetic coils that enabled them to
capture and study the chilled atoms. Phillips and Cohen-Tannoudji expanded
on Chu's work, devising ways to use lasers to trap atoms at temperatures
even closer to absolute zero. These techniques make it possible for
scientists to improve the accuracy of atomic clocks used in space navigation,
to construct atomic interferometers that can precisely measure gravitational
forces, and to design atomic lasers that can be used to manipulate electronic
circuits at an extremely fine scale.
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