Williams Wins NSF Grant For Laser Research Facility

November 06, 1997

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass.--The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Williams College $143,912 to equip a new laser facility.

The new laser facility will bring together four research labs and a student workspace, fostering collaborative work. Because each piece of equipment will be shared among several projects, this grant will support a broad range of research in atomic, molecular, and optical physics.

Williams not only uses lasers and optics in research, but is an innovator in using lasers and optics in physics courses, ranging from holography for non-science majors to quantum mechanics for physics majors.

The laser project is under the direction of Sarah Bolton, assistant professor of physics; Kevin Jones, professor of physics and chair of the physics department; Protik Majumder, assistant professor of physics; Jefferson Strait, associate professor of physics; and John Thoman Jr., associate professor of chemistry and chair of the chemistry department.

The new equipment includes a spectrometer and a wavemeter that will enable researchers to measure optical wavelengths accurately. A photon counting system and a power meter will measure light intensities. A high speed oscilloscope and a spectrum analyzer will be used to analyze electronic signals. The laser facility will also be equipped with numerous optical components and special optical tables to support the equipment. In addition, the grant will be used to purchase two diode lasers that Majumder and Jones will use for their work in atomic physics.

The research interests and experience in lasers and optics of the five professors principally involved in this project overlap in a number of ways.

Bolton and Strait study the physics of modelocked lasers. Bolton and her students have built a laser that produces extremely short pulses of light. They are studying the behavior of this laser, including possible chaotic behavior, and in the future plan to use the laser to study types of semiconductor materials. Strait has focused his research in recent years on optical fibers, and has built, with his students, an optical fiber laser designed to produce very short pulses of light. New equipment purchased by the grant will be used to understand how short pulses of light travel in fiber.

Majumder and Jones work in atomic physics. Majumder and his students are pursuing a series of precise experimental measurements of the atomic structure of certain elements such as thallium. These experiments involve passing laser light through a gas of atoms and studying the interaction of the two. The results of these experiments shed light on some of the fundamental physics theories most commonly tested in large particle physics accelerators. Jones?s research in atomic physics has involved using lasers to cool a gas of atoms to within 1/1000 of a degree ofabsolute zero, and then using another laser to get two of these cold atoms to stick together in a molecule. This technique allows him to prepare molecules in states that are difficult to reach by conventional techniques, but allow a more detailed understanding of the properties of the molecule.

Jones and Thoman have a common interest in molecular physics and have shared the use of specialized laser equipment In his research, Thoman uses laser-induced fluorescence to measure concentrations of gas-phase free radicals such as nitric oxide. Free radicals are atoms or molecules that dominate the chemistry of many reactive environments, including combustion, the upper atmosphere, and plasma etching systems used in the fabrication of microelectronics devices. Thoman studies the kinetics and dynamics of simple reactions involving free radicals, with the hope of understanding and controlling more complex systems.

News/Snyder Williams College is consistently ranked one of the nation's top liberal arts colleges. The college of 2,000 students is located in Williamstown, which has been called the best college town in America. You can visit the college in cyberspace at http://www.williams.edu

Williams College

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