Sarah Anderson

Be Very Quiet, We Are Trapping Atoms

By Stacy Kish on August 4, 2010

Sarah Anderson with her laboratory experiment.

Photo credit: Andrew Cadotte
Fellow: Sarah Anderson
Hometown: Saint Paul, MN
Undergrad: Bethel University, MN
Graduate school: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Keywords: Department of Energy, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Office of Science, Graduate Fellow program, Atomic Physics, Quantum Computing

What kind of net do you cast to catch an atom? Sarah Anderson can tell you. Anderson is a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and has recently been named a DOE Office of Science Graduate Fellow. But she does not use a net. “We trap atoms in a standing wave of light,” explains Anderson.

Anderson is conducting her research on Rydberg atoms, atoms in highly excited states. “Rydberg atoms were first described in the 1880’s by Swedish physicist Johannes Rydberg,” begins Anderson. “The standing light wave forms wells where the atoms become trapped.” According to Anderson, this technique allows her to take advantage of the unique properties of these atoms, as it causes minimal disturbances to the energy levels in the atom. “My research will allow us to better study and control the atom,” she says.

The potential application of this work is huge, in a small way. This work is fundamental to progress toward quantum computing. Anderson explains, “Currently our computing capacity is reaching the quantum limit as transistors get smaller and smaller.” “Quantum computing offers new ways to do computing with single atoms that will allow us to solve problems that are too complicated for conventional computing.” This work could also revolutionize encryption and the security industry.

Anderson came by this formidable field naturally. “I have always been interested in math and science growing up,” she said. Anderson grew up in the atmosphere of math and science with several of her older cousins studying physics and engineering. Atomic physics did not capture her fancy until she was much older. “Growing up, I was more interested in astronomy, but opportunities during undergraduate studies opened the world of atomic physics,” she said.

Anderson concludes, “The graduate fellowship will allow me to spend the next three years investigating and doing research.” Anderson’s graduate fellowship is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Stacy Kish is a Science Writer with the Office of Science