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.

Balantekin named co-PI on NSF grant to solve cosmic mystery

This story has been modified from one originally published by New York Institute of Technology. 

A team of University of Wisconsin–Madison and New York Institute of Technology physicists has secured a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in an attempt to solve one of science’s greatest mysteries: how the universe formed from stardust.

Many of the universe’s elements, including the calcium found in human bones and iron in skyscrapers, originated from ancient stars. However, scientists have long sought to understand the cosmic processes that formed other elements—those with undetermined origins. Now, UW–Madison professor of physics Baha Balantekin and co-principal investigator Eve Armstrong assistant professor of physics at New York Institute of Technology, will perform the first known research project that uses weather prediction techniques to explain these events. Their revolutionary work will be funded by a two-year $299,998 NSF EAGER grant, an award that supports early-stage exploratory projects on untested but potentially transformative ideas that could be considered “high risk/high payoff.”

While the Big Bang created the first and lightest elements (hydrogen and helium), the next and heavier elements (up to iron on the periodic table) formed later inside ancient, massive stars. When these stars exploded, their matter catapulted into space, seeding that space with elements. Eventually, stardust matter from these supernovae formed the sun and planets, and over billions of years, Earth’s matter coalesced into the first life forms. However, the origins of elements heavier than iron, such as gold and copper, remain unknown. While they may have formed during a supernova explosion, current computational techniques render it difficult to comprehensively study the physics of these events. In addition, supernovae are rare, occurring about once every 50 years, and the only existing data is from the last explosion in 1987.

Large information-rich data sets are obtained from increasingly sophisticated experiments and observations on complicated nonlinear systems. The techniques of Statistical Data Assimilation (SDA) have been developed to handle very nonlinear systems with sparsely sampled data. SDA techniques, akin to the path integral methods commonly used in physics, are used in fields ranging from weather prediction to neurobiology. Armstrong and Balantekin will apply the SDA methods to the vast amount of data accumulated so far in neutrino physics and astrophysics.

With simulated data, in preparation for the next supernova event, the team will use data assimilation to predict whether the supernova environment could have given rise to some heavy elements. If successful, these “forecasts” may allow scientists to determine which elements formed from supernova stardust.

This project will provide an opportunity to the Physics graduate students interested in neutrinos to master an interdisciplinary technique with many other applications.

“Physicists have sought for years to understand how, in seconds, giant stars exploded and created the substances that led to our existence. A technique from another scientific field, meteorology, may help to explain an important piece of this puzzle that traditional tools render difficult to access,” says Armstrong.

The NSF is an independent agency of the U.S. government that supports fundamental research and education in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering. Its medical counterpart is the National Institutes of Health. NSF funding accounts for approximately 27 percent of the total federal budget for basic research conducted at U.S. colleges and universities.

This project is funded by NSF EAGER Award ID No. 2139004

The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NSF.