Visit of Prof. Bill Phillips

Visit of Prof. Bill Phillips to S.A.C. Sixth Form on Thursday 8th November 2012


It is not an everyday experience to actually meet in person and talk to a world-renowned Nobel Prize winner in Physics.  Students in the maths and science courses at St. Aloysius’ College Sixth Form were lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet Professor Bill Phillips of the University of Maryland, Nobel Prize winner for Physics in 1997. He shared the prize with C.Cohen-Tannoudji and S. Chu for his contribution to laser-cooling and his invention of the Zeeman slower, a technique for slowing gas atoms to enable them to be studied, at the National Institute for Standards and Technology.

His visit to college was arranged by  the management team together with Dr Andre Xuereb, an ex-college student who went on to study and work with Prof. Phillips and is now visiting researcher at Queen’s University, Belfast. 

The lecture was held in the sixth form assembly hall, and was open to all maths and science course students, uppers and lowers, who filled the hall to capacity.  It was immediately obvious that Prof. Phillips’ talk was not going to be a conventional dry lecture.  He started off by explaining, with the aid of slides and spontaneous sketches, what it is that scientists do at the National Institute for Standards and Technology.  He then introduced the students to some concepts of relativity, fascinating them with an explanation of the twin-paradox and the dilatation of time.  Next came an introduction to quantum phenomena via the photoelectric effect, and here he decided to stop for questions. Students were encouraged to ask him all sorts of questions and they were even rewarded with a ‘gift’ of a physics data card and a compact periodic table for doing so!  The questions just kept on coming, and Prof. Phillips answered each one with the same unhurried patience and enthusiasm. He seemed to be enjoying the process and more than once told his audience: “This is great!”

Although the time allotted for the lecture was long overdue, Prof. Phillips did not want to stop, and when some students had to leave to go to lectures, he offered to stay on with the remaining ones. These now crowded round him and continued with their questions, then he proceeded with a practical demonstration of a spinning top “suspended” above a magnetic field to explain a concept behind his prize-winning research.  Before he could finally leave, Prof. Phillips was bombarded by eager students who asked him to autograph the data cards he had just given them. Many wanted to have their photos taken with the famous scientist, who was patiently obliging and was not in the least hurry to leave.

Most of the students said it was a great opportunity to meet such an eminent scientist in person, and to have him answer their questions in such a down-to-earth way. It certainly helped to raise the image of a scientist in their minds to a more ‘cool’ status. It is perhaps relevant that the title of the talk was: “The coolest stuff in the Universe”!


 

                                                        


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