By John Burke
Assistant professor of applied physics Benjamin Lev, who moved to Stanford last month from the physics department at the University of Illinois, has been named by President Barack Obama to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. He will be honored at the White House Oct. 14, along with 94 other recipients of the award.
Lev was nominated in recognition of breakthroughs he and his research group made in laser-cooling techniques and cold-temperature quantum physics. His research focused on the study of strongly correlated quantum systems, a class of matter that exhibits very strange and interesting properties but is often very hard to study in detail.
Specifically his team managed to cool dysprosium, the most magnetic element on the periodic table, to the necessary level in order to study it, a breakthrough that successfully earned him the award.
Lev said that while he did not know about the award before anyone else did, he did see a warning sign.
“I heard about it pretty much when everyone else did, but I had an inkling when the FBI contacted me about a background check a week or so earlier,” Lev said.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s website, the Presidential Award is the “highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers.”
Since this breakthrough, Lev and his research group have been using their novel laser-cooling techniques to create new, exotic states of matter from ultra-cold dysprosium gases. This past summer, they created the first dysprosium Bose-Einstein condensate, a state of matter in which the matter waves of all of the atoms in the system synchronize, creating strange quantum effects.
They have also used dysprosium to create quantum liquid crystals, a state of matter sharing many of the properties of the liquid crystals used in LCD screens, but with additional quantum effects arising from the tiny scale and temperature of the system.
Lev said the goal of his research was to “understand underlying organizing principles of complex quantum matter to use them to design useful materials or make useful devices for quantum computing memory.”
“I think the most important benefit [of the award] will be garnering recognition for the work done by my grad students, and helping me recruit bright young students in the future.”
In addition to his study of strongly correlated systems and exotic quantum matter, Lev has been working recently on two other related projects. The first involves using dysprosium, and his research team’s innovative techniques for cooling and controlling it, to create the world’s most precise magnetic microscope.
The other ongoing project consists of attempts to create true crystals out of atoms and light, using complex patterns of laser interference to create three-dimensional lattices out of light and hold the atoms into a crystalline structure.