Carl Edwin Wieman shared the 2001 physics prize with his colleague Eric Cornell and German Wolfgang Ketterle for the achievement of Bose-Einstein condensation (BEC). In 1924 the Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose made theoretical calculations regarding photons, light particles. Albert Einstein then predicted that if a gas of atoms were cooled sufficiently, the atoms would gather in the lowest possible energy state – similar to normal condensation. Seventy years later, in 1995, Wieman and Cornell succeeded in proving this theory experimentally. It is hoped BEC will prove useful in precision measurement and nanotechnology.
Wieman was born in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1951, the fourth of five children of a (college graduate) sawmill worker, and grew up in the forest hinterland. Isolation – and no TV – made the young Carl a voracious reader. He attended the rural Kings Valley grade school, and upper school in Philomath. The family then moved to Corvallis, where he admits to being an average high school student, but a respected inter-state chess player. Even so, he was accepted into MIT where, after a sporting career was cut short by tennis elbow, he concentrated on physics, and gained a reputation for living in his lab for six months.
After graduation in 1973, he moved to Stanford, working on laser spectroscopy under Ted Hänsch and gaining his PhD in 1977. He then took a research and teaching position at the University of Michigan but left in 1984 to join the University of Colorado in Boulder. That year he also married fellow physicist Sarah Gilbert. Within a year their team carried out the first measurement of parity violation in cesium – refining their result in subsequent years. The experiment made use of a diode laser. It was while seeking a further use for this device that Wieman entered the field of laser cooling and trapping and ultimately BEC.
With an undergraduate, Bill Swann, Wieman invented a new means to trap atoms using only diode lasers and a small glass cell. They then managed to move the atoms to a magnetic trap and in doing so they obtained trapped atoms about 100 times colder than had been achieved previously. This success inspired Wieman, joined in 1990 by Eric Cornell, to attempt BEC by further cooling the magnetic trap. In 1995, the duo cooled rubidium atoms to 20nK (nanokelvin) – 0.000 000 02 degrees above absolute zero – to form a BEC. This new state of matter contains atoms so cold and so slow that they, in effect, merge and behave as a single entity.
Wieman is a keen proponent of physics education. In 2004 he was US Professor of the Year and later chaired the National Academy of Sciences’ Education Board. In 2007 he joined the University of British Columbia, but maintains ties to the education project he founded in Colorado. Wieman served as founding chair of the Board of Science Education of the National Academy of Sciences and was the founder of PhET which provides online interactive simulations that are used 100 million times per year to learn science. Wieman directed the science education initiatives at the Universities of Colorado and British Columbia which carried out large scale change in teaching methods across university science departments.
From 2010-2012, Wieman served as associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Carl Wieman currently holds a joint appointment as Professor of Physics and of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.