Coherent light production found in very low optical density atomic clouds

No atom is an island, and scientists have known for decades that groups of atoms form communities that “talk” to each other. But there is still much to learn about how atoms — particularly energetically excited ones — interact in groups.

In a study published in PRX Quantum, physicists from the University of Wisconsin–Madison observed communication between atoms at lower and lower densities. They found that the atoms influence each other at 100 times lower densities than probed before, exhibiting slow decay rates and emitting coherent light.

“It seems that (low-density) groups of excited atoms spontaneously organize to then produce light that is coherent,” says David Gold, a postdoctoral fellow in Deniz Yavuz’s group and lead author of the study. “These findings are pretty interesting from a basic science standpoint, and in terms of quantum computing, the takeaway is that even with very low numbers of atoms, you can see significant amounts of (these effects).”

A well-established property of atoms is found in electron excitation: when a specific wavelength of light hits an atom of a specific element, an electron is excited to a higher orbital level. As that electron decays back to its initial state, a photon of a specific wavelength is emitted. A single atom has a characteristic decay rate for that process. When groups of atoms are studied, their interactions are observed: the initial decay rate is very fast, or superradiant, then transitions to a slower, or subradiant, rate.

A schematic of the experimental setup. (Top) the overall apparatus used. (A) shows the setup for the first part of the experiment, where the researchers were measuring decay rates in lower and lower density clouds. (B) shows the setup for the second part of the paper, with the addition of an interferometer

Though well-established in dense clouds, this group-talk has never been studied in less dense clouds of atoms, which could have impacts on applications such as quantum computing.

In their first set of experiments, Gold and colleagues asked what the decay rate of lower-density clouds looked like. They supercooled the atoms in a cloud, hit them with an excitation laser, and recorded the decay rates as an intensity of emitted light over time. They observed the characteristic subradiance. In this case, they did not always see superradiance, likely due to the reduced number of atoms available to measure.

profile picture of David Gold
David Gold

Next, they asked what happened if they let the cloud expand — or decrease in density — for varying periods of time before repeating their experiment. They found that as the cloud become less and less dense, the amount of subradiance decreased, until eventually a density was reached where the atoms stopped behaving like a group and instead displayed single-atom decay rates.

“The most subradiance that we observed was at around a hundred times lower optical density than it had previously been observed before,” Gold says.

Now that the researchers knew that a less dense cloud still decays subradiantly to a point, they asked if the decay was happening in an isolated manner, or if the atoms were really acting as a group. If acting as a group, the emitted light would be coherent, or more laser-like, with some structure between the atoms.

They used the same experimental setup but added an interferometer, where light is split and recombined before the photons are detected. They first set the baseline interference pattern by moving the mirror closer or further away from the splitter — changing the path length of one of the beams — and mapping the interference pattern of the split light waves that were emitted from the same atom.

If there were no relationship between the two atoms and the light they emit, then they would have expected to see no interference pattern. Instead, they saw that for some distance of mirror displacement, the lightwaves did interfere, indicating that different atoms being measured were nonetheless producing coherent light.

“I think this is the more exciting thing we found: that the light that’s being emitted is coherent and it has more of the properties of a laser than you would expect,” Gold says. “The atoms are influenced by each other and not in a way we would have expected.”

Aside from the interesting physics seen in the study, Gold says the work is also applicable to quantum computing, particularly as those computers grow bigger in the future.

“Even if everything in a quantum computer is running perfectly and the system was completely isolated, there’s still this inherent thing of, well, the atoms just might decay down from [the computational] state,” Gold says.

This work was supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant No. 2016136 for the QLCI center Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks.

Thad Walker honored with Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professorship

profile photo of Thad Walker
Thad Walker

Extraordinary members of the University of Wisconsin–Madison faculty, including physics professor Thad Walker, have been honored during the last year with awards supported by the estate of professor, U.S. senator and UW Regent William F. Vilas (1840-1908).

Walker was one of seventeen professors were named to Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professorships, an award recognizing distinguished scholarship as well as standout efforts in teaching and service. The professorship provides five years of flexible funding — two-thirds of which is provided by the Office of the Provost through the generosity of the Vilas trustees and one-third provided by the school or college whose dean nominated the winner.

In addition, nine professors received Vilas Faculty Mid-Career Investigator Awards and six professors received Vilas Faculty Early Career Investigator Awards.

Detailed analysis of old star provides template for heavy element formation

This story was originally published by University Communications

The fusion furnaces that are the universe’s stars create the elements from helium up to iron. But iron is only number 26 on the periodic table out of well over 100 known elements. So the heavier ones, like gold, lead and uranium, must come from somewhere other than fusion.

Scientists have long known that those heavy elements come from neutron capture, where neutrons are added to an element that make it unstable, then it radioactively decays and its atomic number increases by one. Nearly 70 years ago, they confirmed one site, or event, of a neutron capture method known as the slow, or s-process. The rapid, or r-process, was not confirmed with a site until 2017, when the LIGO/VIRGO collaboration detected a neutron star merger.

“With a neutron star merger, the neutron stars are ripped apart and they throw out neutrons, and you can build lots of heavy elements out of these neutron stars,” says Jim Lawler, a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “The mystery arises when we look at the total r-process inventory of our home galaxy: Can we explain all that with neutron star mergers or are there additional sites?”

In a new study led by astronomers from the University of Michigan, Lawler and colleagues identified the elemental composition of HD 222925, a Milky Way star located over 1400 lightyears from earth. Their analysis confirmed that the star was rich in r-process elements, and they were able to identify and calculate the relative abundance of each element. They also found that the star is iron- and metal-poor, a proxy for age that indicates HD 222925 is relatively old and provides information about early star formation.

“We were able to determine a complete r-process abundance pattern for what we think is probably one event that happened early in the beginning of the universe,” Lawler says. “So that r-process template now can be used to screen various models of the nuclear physics that produce the r-process and see if the models for all sites are physically correct.”

At UW–Madison, Lawler and scientist Elizabeth Denhartog contributed the spectroscopic analysis that identified the elements in the star. Every element has a unique electromagnetic spectrum that can be separated into spectral lines using a diffraction grating — just like a prism separates white light into a rainbow. HD 222925 is a relatively bright star, meaning it provided stronger spectra to analyze. It was also identified by the Hubble Space Telescope, providing access to data in the ultraviolet range that is normally blocked by the ozone layer and undetectable by telescopes on Earth.

For the full story, read more on the University of Michigan’s news site.


Mark Saffman named WARF professor

This post is adapted from the original

profile photo of Mark Saffman, posing in his lab with lots of wires and equipment
Mark Saffman

Thirty-two members of the University of Wisconsin–Madison faculty — including physics professor Mark Saffman — have been awarded fellowships from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education for 2022-23. The awardees span the four divisions on campus: arts and humanities, physical sciences, social sciences and biological sciences.

“These awards provide an opportunity for campus to recognize our outstanding faculty,” says Steve Ackerman, vice chancellor for research and graduate education. “They highlight faculty efforts to support the research, teaching, outreach and public service missions of the university.”

The awards are possible due to the research efforts of UW–Madison faculty and staff. Technology that arises from these efforts is licensed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and the income from successful licenses is returned to the OVCRGE, where it’s used to fund research activities and awards throughout the divisions on campus.

Mark Saffman was awarded a WARF professorship. These professorships come with $100,000 and honor faculty who have made major contributions to the advancement of knowledge, primarily through their research endeavors, but also as a result of their teaching and service activities. Award recipients choose the names associated with their professorships. Saffman, the Johannes Rydberg Professor of Physics and director of The Wisconsin Quantum Institute, first began work on atomic physics and initiated a long-term effort to develop quantum computers. He is known for his research as a leader in the ongoing development of atomic quantum computers based on the Rydberg blockade mechanism.

In addition, physics affiliate professor Mikhail Kats received a Romnes Faculty Fellowship.

Congratulations to Professor Lawler on his retirement!

After 42 years on the UW–Madison faculty, Jim Lawler, the Arthur and Aurelia Schawlow Professor of Physics, has announced his retirement. Lawler is an atomic, molecular & optical physicist with a focus developing and applying laser spectroscopic techniques for determining accurate absolute atomic transition probabilities. His retirement is official as of May 22.

“What we’ve really done gradually over four-plus decades is make atomic spectroscopy more quantitative so that people can use it to really learn the detailed physics and chemistry of the remote universe,” Lawler says.

Lawler received his MS (’74) and PhD (’78) from this department, studying with now-professor emeritus Wilmer Anderson. In the two years after earning his doctorate, he was a research associate at Stanford University, and returned to UW–Madison as an assistant professor in 1980.

“There was a little bit of a disadvantage to come back to a place where I had recently been as a student,” Lawler says. “But I knew I would get extremely good graduate students and I would have access to a lot of infrastructure, and that combination really drew me back.”

He had extremely good graduate students and postdocs. Lawler supervised 26 PhD students and 10 terminal MS students. Those students and postdocs have gone on to prestigious National Research Council Fellowships, group lead positions at major companies, and tenured professorships, amongst many others.

Lawler served as department chair from 1994-1997. He also accumulated numerous awards and honors over his distinguished career. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society, the Optical Society of America, the U.K. Institute of Physics, and in 2020 he was elected a Legacy Fellow of the inaugural class of American Astronomical Society Fellows. He won the 1992 W. P. Allis Prize of the American Physical Society and the 1995 Penning Award from the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics for research in plasma physics, the two highest National and International Awards in the field of Low Temperature Plasma Physics. In 2017, he won Laboratory Astrophysics Prize of the American Astronomical Society for research in spectroscopy.

Longtime collaborator Blair Savage, UW–Madison professor emeritus of astronomy, says:

“Jim’s work in laboratory astrophysics provided extremely important atomic ultraviolet transition probabilities in support of the Hubble Space Telescope programs to determine elemental abundances of gaseous matter in the interstellar medium from three different ultraviolet spectrographs over the 32-year history of the space observatory. They included the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph, the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph.”

And Wilmer Anderson, Lawler’s doctoral advisor, says:

“He was a very good graduate student, and he of course has turned out to be a really great scientist and colleague. His lifetime measurements on atomic physics played a key role in understanding the neutron star collisions. I’m sorry to see him retiring but I’m sure that he will leave a legacy behind that’s really fantastic. It’s going to be a big loss to the department not to have him around.”

Lawler has collaborated with his AMO colleagues over the years, but in more of an intellectual capacity than in research. As he notes, much of AMO is headed in the quantum information and quantum computing direction, with public and private funding helping to drive it. Still, he does not see AMO headed solely in the quantum direction.

“Decades from now the currently Hot areas of physics will be less glamorous, but those stars are still going to be light years away,” Lawler says. “I think the connection of astronomy and spectroscopy — the way we learn about the physics and chemistry of the remote universe — is strong enough that it will survive. And helping make spectroscopy in astronomy more quantitative is what we’ve done that will have some lasting significance.”


Ultraprecise atomic clock poised for new physics discoveries

University of Wisconsin–Madison physicists have made one of the highest performance atomic clocks ever, they announced Feb. 16 in the journal Nature.

Their instrument, known as an optical lattice atomic clock, can measure differences in time to a precision equivalent to losing just one second every 300 billion years and is the first example of a “multiplexed” optical clock, where six separate clocks can exist in the same environment. Its design allows the team to test ways to search for gravitational waves, attempt to detect dark matter, and discover new physics with clocks.

optical video of a ball of strontium atoms being mutliplexed into 6 separate, smaller spheres of atoms, like pearls along a string
From one sphere of supercooled strontium atoms, Kolkowitz’s group multiplexes them into six separate spheres, each of which can be used as an atomic clock.

“Optical lattice clocks are already the best clocks in the world, and here we get this level of performance that no one has seen before,” says Shimon Kolkowitz, a UW–Madison physics professor and senior author of the study. “We’re working to both improve their performance and to develop emerging applications that are enabled by this improved performance.”

Atomic clocks are so precise because they take advantage of a fundamental property of atoms: when an electron changes energy levels, it absorbs or emits light with a frequency that is identical for all atoms of a particular element. Optical atomic clocks keep time by using a laser that is tuned to precisely match this frequency, and they require some of the world’s most sophisticated lasers to keep accurate time.

By comparison, Kolkowitz’s group has “a relatively lousy laser,” he says, so they knew that any clock they built would not be the most accurate or precise on its own. But they also knew that many downstream applications of optical clocks will require portable, commercially available lasers like theirs. Designing a clock that could use average lasers would be a boon.

Read the full story

Shimon Kolkowitz one of four UW professors awarded Sloan Fellowship

Four University of Wisconsin–Madison professors, including assistant professor of physics Shimon Kolkowitz, have been named to Sloan Research Fellowships — competitive, prestigious awards given to promising researchers in the early stages of their careers.

“Today’s Sloan Research Fellows represent the scientific leaders of tomorrow,” says Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which has awarded the fellowships since 1955. “As formidable young scholars, they are already shaping the research agenda within their respective fields—and their trailblazing won’t end here.”

Kolkowitz, an assistant professor of physics, builds some of the most precise clocks in the world by trapping ultracold atoms of strontium — clocks so accurate they could be used to test fundamental theories of physics and search for dark matter.

UW–Madison’s other 2022 Sloan Fellows are Tatyana Shcherbina (math), Zachary K. Wickens (chemistry) and Andrew Zimmer (math).

The UW–Madison professors are among 118 researchers from the United States and Canada honored by the New York-based philanthropic foundation. The four new fellows join 110 UW–Madison researchers honored in the past.

Each fellow receives $75,000 in research funding from the foundation, which awards Sloan Research Fellowships in eight scientific and technical fields: chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences and physics.

Shimon Kolkowitz earns NSF CAREER award

profile photo of Shimon Kolkowitz
Shimon Kolkowitz

Shimon Kolkowitz has already developed one of the most precise atomic clocks ever. Now, the UW­­–Madison physics professor has been awarded a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to use his atomic clocks to potentially answer some big questions about the physics of our universe.

The five-year, $800,000 in total award will cover research expenses, graduate student support, and outreach projects based on the research.

“I am honored and proud to receive an NSF CAREER award, which will help my research group expand our experimental efforts and build upon our recent results,” Kolkowitz says. “This award will support research into new ways to harness the remarkable precision of optical atomic clocks for exciting physics applications such as searching for dark matter and detecting gravitational waves.”

optical video of a ball of strontium atoms being mutliplexed into 6 separate, smaller spheres of atoms, like pearls along a string
From one sphere of supercooled strontium atoms, Kolkowitz’s group multiplexes them into six separate spheres, each of which can be used as an atomic clock.

Atomic clocks are so precise because they take advantage of the natural vibration frequencies of atoms, which are identical for all atoms of a particular element. Kolkowitz and his research group have developed atomic clocks that can detect the difference in these frequencies between two clocks that would only disagree with each other by one second after 300 billion years, the tiniest detectable frequency changes to date. These clocks, then, can measure effects that shifts their frequency by only 0.00000000000000001%, opening the possibility of using them in the search for new physics.

A significant advancement in Kolkowitz’s clocks is that they are multiplexed, with six or more separate clocks in one

vacuum chamber, effectively placing each clock in the same environment. Mutliplexing means that comparisons between the clocks, and not their individual accuracy, is what matters — and allows the group to use commercially available, robust and portable lasers in their measurements. Though the clocks are not yet ready to be used to detect gravitational waves, Kolkowitz says the current setup “looks a bit like how you would eventually do that,” and will allow him to test out and demonstrate the concept.

In the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea and the NSF’s “broader impacts” to benefit society beyond scientific merit, with this award, Kolkowitz will focus efforts on quantum science outreach with pre-college students.

“We’ll be developing new demos and hands-on activities designed to introduce K-12 students to modern physics concepts,” Kolkowitz says. “We’ll use these activities to engage students at live shows and interactive events as part of The Wonders of Physics outreach program, with an emphasis on reaching rural and Native American communities in Wisconsin.”

NSF established these awards to help scientists and engineers develop simultaneously their contributions to research and education early in their careers. CAREER funds are awarded by the federal agency to junior-level faculty at colleges and universities.

Deniz Yavuz announced as Vilas Associate

The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education has announced 23 faculty winners of the Vilas Associates Competition, including physics professor Deniz Yavuz. The Vilas Associates Competition recognizes new and ongoing research of the highest quality and significance.

The award is funded by the William F. Vilas Estate Trust.

Recipients are chosen competitively by the divisional research committees on the basis of a detailed proposal. Winners receive up to two-ninths of research salary support (including the associated fringe costs) for both summers 2021 and 2022, as well as a $12,500 flexible research fund in each of the two fiscal years. Faculty paid on an annual basis are not eligible for the summer salary support but are eligible for the flexible fund portion of this award.

Physics alum, professor emeritus Barney Webb remembered for his many contributions to the University and his field

University of Wisconsin–Madison Professor Emeritus Maurice Barnett “Barney” Webb passed away January 15, 2021 in Middleton, WI. He was 94.

Born and raised in Neenah, WI in 1926, Professor Webb earned his both his bachelor’s (’50) and doctoral (’56) degrees from the UW–Madison Physics Department. After graduating, he went to work at General Electric Research Laboratory as a staff scientist. In 1961, he returned to UW–Madison as a tenured Associate Professor of Physics.

A 1996 celebration of Barney Webb (front row, center) and his career was attended by many students and colleagues. From left to right: Jim Schilling, Ray Phaneuf, Art Kotz, Bill Weber, Bill Packard, Barney, Ed Conrad, Bill Unertl, John Unguris, Brian Swartzentruber, Liz Moog, Max Lagally | Photo provided by Jim Schilling

Barney served as Department Chair from 1971-1973, taking the reins of a department that had been traumatized by the 1970 Sterling Hall bombing. In 1977, he was named chair of the University Committee, the Executive Committee of the faculty and the most important and visible manifestation of faculty governance at UW–Madison. From 1985-1990, he served as Chair of the UW–Madison Athletic Board. He was an Emeritus Professor with the department since his retirement in 2001.

Remarkably, Barney was as prominent in the scientific community as he was on campus. His research interests included surface physics, low-energy electron diffraction, and scanning tunneling microscopy. In 1987, he was awarded the Davisson-Germer Prize in Atomic or Surface Physics from the American Physical Society “For his contribution to the development of low-energy electron diffraction as a quantitative probe of the crystallography defect structure, and dynamics of surfaces.” 

Several UW–Madison colleagues recently reflected on their time with Barney.

Of Barney’s competitive academic research program, Emeritus Professor Franz Himpsel says,

“It is particularly notable that during Barney’s career, the big industrial research labs (Bell Labs, IBM, Xerox) dominated at the cutting edge of research in condensed matter and surface physics — Barney’s specialties. Compared to a university professor, their research staff members had vast resources available — not only financially but also via interactions with expert in-house colleagues. Despite the odds, Barney kept up with them by devising clever experiments and building most of his equipment together with his students.”

Current materials science and engineering professor and former student of Barney’s, Max Lagally, recalls, “What always scared me is when Barney started saying ‘I don’t know anything about this, but…’ and then proceeded to demonstrate that he knew all about it.”

Barney is seated on the left and Ray is to Barney's left, crouched down to pose for the photo
Barney Webb (left) and his former student Ray Phaneuf (Ph.D. ’85) in February 2020.

Emeritus Professor Louis Bruch noted that Barney’s competitive edge carried over to interests outside the lab. Bruch says, “He was a competitive gardener, for instance on the question of first ripe tomatoes and last ripe strawberries.” And Professor Pupa Gilbert recalls, “Barney had a terrific sense of humor, and was an intrepid cyclist for most of his life. As he aged, he said that uphill roads ‘got steeper and steeper,’ so he stopped biking on them.”

Professor Mark Eriksson says that Barney was a great mentor and role model, always understated about his own accomplishments, and always willing to offer advice when asked.

“This was certainly true throughout my time on the faculty since 1999, when Barney was supportive and encouraging from day one. But it was true for me far earlier than that. At 9am on February 28, 1987, I met with Professor Webb in his office. He had agreed to talk to my father and me about choosing an undergraduate college, since I was interested in physics. I was a 17-year-old high school junior from Madison LaFollette. Barney didn’t know either my father or me, and the 28th was a Saturday. None of that mattered, and he was happy to take the time to talk with us. When I joined the faculty years later, I of course remembered that conversation, and so did he.”

Professor Bob Joynt says, “I probably had lunch with Barney 4000 times over 30 years, the last time when he was 92 and still coming in pretty much every day. He was the same age as my father. However, he was not a mentor but a protector. He shielded me every day from everything that is boring in life – he was a person always interested in everything and approached it all with the most lively intellect.  I never remember a moment in his company that was not absorbing and fun.”

Tributes and stories from Barney’s students and colleagues have been compiled here.

Barney’s obituary with Cress Funeral Services can be found at