Explaining atomic motion

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On November 21, 2016

By laser-cooling atoms and studying their movements, a Missouri S&T physicist hopes to better understand how environmental factors affect atoms and their components.

Daniel Fischer, assistant professor of physics, uses laser beams to trap lithium atoms in a magnetic field inside a custom-built vacuum chamber. He then ionizes them using different lasers and, with the aid of a high-resolution momentum microscope, measures the distance and velocity they travel.

“It can be extremely challenging to predict the motion of three or more particles due to their mutual forces,” Fischer says. “This complex interplay of several particles requires a combination of theoretical and experimental research because such systems cannot be fully described by mathematical expressions alone.”

This is what physicists refer to as the “few-body problem,” which continues to confound the physics world.

“These few-body problems have both fundamental and technological relevance for the future,” he says. “For example, if you destroy a cancerous cell in a body, the destruction of the genetic material is not only driven by their direct absorption of radiation but also by the interaction with nearby molecules and surrounding liquids. By understanding how the atoms of these cells share the absorbed energy, we could better control localized treatments.”

Few-body prediction could also be used in materials science, quantum chemistry, biological science and information processing, says Fischer.

Fischer’s research was funded through a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Early Career Development (CAREER) Program.

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On November 21, 2016. Posted in Around the Puck, Fall/Winter 2016, In this issue, Research