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LaserFest: W&M celebrates 50 years of the laser

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Faculty members and students in the physics department pulled out all the stops in November to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the laser. During a daylong open house, they presented lectures, gave tours of their labs, hosted lab-based treasure hunts, gave out holographic decals and small laser pens and continuously served ice-cream created as part of a fog-encased brew using liquid nitrogen as a cooling agent.

The event, hosted by the College after it won a grant competition sponsored by the Optical Society of America (OSA) and the American Physical Society, drew nearly 200 visitors.

Ronald Wilcox ’11, among the numerous William & Mary students participating, explained, “The laser has revolutionized the way data is stored and collected, the way CDs and BluRay’s are used. It essentially has opened up new technologies. We are just excited to show how these technologies are being used here at the College.”

Inside the labs, professors and physics students explained the types of research that are ongoing. Visitors heard about attempts to increase computer memory, to miniaturize atomic clocks and to make things very cold. Many asked questions prompted by their “treasure-hunt” sheets.

“How cold can you get with laser cooling,” one elementary-school student asked Seth Aubin, assistant professor of physics.

“So, what is the coldest place on planet Earth?” Aubin responded.

“Antarctica.”

“That’s right,” Aubin responded. “And, in this lab, we can cool things down to one-million-times colder than Antarctica. In science-speak, we say that’s 100 micro-Kelvin.”

Among those sampling the ice cream was Keith Griffioen, chair of the physics department. Griffioen, who joked about writing the first liquid-nitrogen cookbook as he waited to be served, ultimately gave the treat a big thumbs-up. Although he admitted that he never sampled the ice-cream routinely produced by chemistry students, “Ours has to be better,” he speculated.

Irina Novikova, assistant professor of physics, said by all accounts the event was a success. As an active member of the OSA, she appreciated the opportunity to “educate people about science and optics, in particular,” she said.

“Everyone I talked to that day, from kids to grandpartents, seemed to be excited about lasers and sciences, which was our main goal,” Novikova said. “The lecture halls and laser demonstrations were quite full, there was a constant stream of people in the research labs, and kids at the end of the day were excited and tired. I think thesse are good signs.”