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Nobel Laureate Bill Phillips Visits Bethel

Nobel Laureate Bill Phillips Visits Bethel

Nobel Laureate Bill Phillips conducted demonstrations in Benson Great Hall during his talk on “Time, Einstein, and the Coolest Stuff in the Universe.”

A gray cloud rolled off the edge of the stage, fading as it spilled into the crowded hall. The audience gasped in surprise and on-stage, globally renowned physicist Bill Phillips smiled as he poured liquid nitrogen across the floor. Phillips, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 for developing methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light, stood in Bethel’s Benson Great Hall on April 18 before a captivated audience. “This is literally some of the coolest stuff in the universe,” he said.

Phillips—who is a member of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and a graduate of Juniata College in Pennsylvania—has worked as an experimental physicist for almost 50 years. At an event sponsored by the Bethel Physics Department, Phillips provided a family-friendly presentation titled, “Time, Einstein, and the Coolest Stuff in the Universe,” in which he explained the application of cooling atoms with laser technology to building ultra-accurate atomic clocks.

With humility and humor, Phillips described how laser technology, when used to cool atoms, slows the atoms down, allowing scientists to build increasingly accurate atomic clocks that measure over a million times better than your average wristwatch. These clocks increase the accuracy and reliability of GPS technology, which is used by everyone from drivers, bikers, and golfers, to commercial and military aircraft and ships, to earth scientists studying continental drift.

Phillips used liquid nitrogen to give the audience a better idea of just how cold atoms become using the laser technology. To demonstrate, Phillips doused a fresh flower in liquid nitrogen, causing it to shatter like glass. He also showed how balloons appear to deflate then reflate by exposing them first to liquid nitrogen and then to regular room-temperature air.

Earlier that day, Phillips presented to a group of Bethel faculty, staff, and students about the connections between faith and science. “Science and religion are two powerful forces in modern society,” Phillips said, “so we should take the time to understand their relationship.” As both a person of faith and a physicist, Phillips shared the perspective with which he addresses this relationship. Phillips argued that science and religion ask different questions but aren’t fundamentally opposed as so many seem to believe. “Being an ordinary scientist and an ordinary Christian seems perfectly natural to me,” he said.

As the entertaining and educational night concluded, complete with explosions and levitation, Phillips stayed after the presentation to answer questions ranging from “How long have you been a scientist?” to “What is quantum physics exactly?” Once the questions wrapped up, Phillips said goodbye while reminding audience members: “It’s never the end because there’s always something new to learn.”