The Shoulders of Giants

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OSA Frontiers in Optics/Laser Science APS/DLS

The Optical Society of America Annual Meeting

October 18, 2015 to October 22, 2015

San Jose, CA

Meeting host:

The Optical Society


Steven Torrisi

SPS Chapter:

The “International Year of Light” reception as seen from above. Photo by Steven Torrisi.

The late Charles Townes was a towering figure in science, winning the Nobel prize in 1964 for the invention of the laser and the maser, holding faculty positions at Columbia, MIT, and Berkeley, and mentoring dozens of students who went on to make seminal contributions to their fields. It seemed fitting to begin the 99th annual meeting of The Optical Society (Frontiers in Optics) with a symposium celebrating his 99 years of life, as former students lined up on stage to share stories that were funny, touching, and inspiring.

Students of Townes like Robert Boyd and Elsa Garmire didn’t just talk about Townes as a scientist, but how he was a mentor as well as a friend. They shared episodes of how he attended their weddings or once playfully demonstrated the acoustics of a corrugated wall on a stroll through Cambridge. His patience and generosity set an example to them—for example, he firmly believed that scientific papers should never have more than three authors, feeling it diluted the impact, and would sometimes leave his name off of his own lab’s work so as to maximize the credit given to his students.

Sitting there in the audience, on the first day of my first scientific conference, I realized that I too had felt the impact of Townes in a much broader way: Lasers have played a key role in each of the research experiences I’ve been a part of, from atomic physics, to nuclear fusion, to cancer treatment. I came to realize over the next few days that a scientific conference was not just a forum for new and important science, but a celebration of the institution, practice, and people of science.

I saw this spirit firsthand at the undergraduate symposium within the conference, hosted by the APS’s division of laser science. Organized almost entirely by Professor Harold ‘Hal’ Metcalf of Stony Brook, he corralled over 40 undergraduates from across the nation to San Jose to present their research at a joint poster/oral presentation session on the second day of the conference. Graduate students and senior scientists alike wandering by took the time to visit posters and the oral sessions, and it was meaningful to see other conference-goers supporting the undergraduate session. Particularly memorable posters included Sarah Freed’s (from Buffalo), who numerically studied the time evolution of discord and correlation in a system of coupled quantum dots, and Xiang Hua (from Stony Brook), who computationally and experimentally studied how a bichromatic force affects laser cooling of a quantum system. I did not present a poster, but delivered an oral presentation on the work I did at the National Institute of Standards & Technology the previous summer on the laser cooling of atoms in a Penning ion trap.

I have only been doing research in optical physics for the past two years, and I still feel like I am developing a sense of scientific self. My time at Frontiers in Optics helped me do just that.  As a senior physics and math major at the University of Rochester, my alma mater’s strong optics presence helped me feel literally at home at the conference. It felt like a meaningful symbolic progression to see a professor who taught my introductory quantum physics course presenting his current research in novel entanglement measures. Additionally, attending with fellow Rochester undergraduate Ananya, who I work with at school and did research with this summer at NIST, made for a fun experience.

Meeting new people was also a part of the fun. Hal Metcalf worked to get other professors and experts from different parts of the broader physics community to host a brief Q&A session for us before our oral presentations.  Hal himself was also a treat to meet. Easily spotted from a distance by his wild white hair, he looks professorial. A gregarious character, I noticed Hal approaching each and every undergraduate to strike up conversation and learn more about who they were. When he introduced himself to me, he told me a funny story: apparently, there used to be a serious volleyball scene at atomic, molecular, and optical physics conferences in the 80’s (!). Even more amusing, my advisor from over the summer—John Bollinger—plus two people from his group who also stand over 6 feet tall, were notorious for terrorizing the courts and crushing all opponents.

Putting faces to names, meeting people who’ve known my advisors for longer than I’ve been alive, and seeing research from people in every stage of their career made me feel a general sense of coming into the optical physics community. This, plus the tone of mentorship set on the first day, lead me to think about the people in my own scientific career who helped bring me to San Jose in the first place: My mentors at Rochester (Janet Fogg, Nicholas Bigelow, and graduate students Justin, Joe, Azure, and Maitreyi), my advisors over summers past (Christian Stoeckl, Felix Warmer, John Bollinger), and upperclassmen who helped me navigate the department coming in to school.

As a student writing for other students, I decided to ask some of the distinguished speakers at the conference to share their experiences with mentors who had an important influence on them. A few common trends seemed to emerge. For example, good mentors tended to have an infectious enthusiasm about science coupled with a measured and deliberate way of approaching research questions. Here are what a few of the conference goers had to say.

David Reitze is the executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), and was a plenary speaker at the conference. LIGO is one of the most mind-bogglingly complicated experiments in scientific history, in which a laser bounced over a 4 kilometer long line will produce an interference pattern when the space-time along the path warps due to a gravitational wave. His talk discussed some of the heroic error reduction and laser stability efforts they go to, such as building two identical apparatuses in Washington and Louisiana to filter local seismic effects, or plans to build a third in Australia or India! Reitze cited two influential mentors: Michael Downer, his doctoral advisor at UT Austin, who was superlative in “the way he approached science”. “When I came to grad school,” Reitze explained,  “I thought the scheme was just setting up equations and solving for the answer, but [Downer] was methodical and systematic about approaching a problem as a whole”. Another influential mentor was Reiner Weiss, one of the architects of LIGO, who Reitze described as “a phenomenon”. Retize explained that Weiss lead by example in literally rolling up his sleeves to delve deep into any problem, such as when a leak smaller in diameter than a human hair sprung in one of LIGO’s vacuum tubes (again—kilometers long!). Weiss calculated a way to isolate the leak to within 20 meters, and actually helped to search for the leak,—as a man in his 80’s—crawling around the tube and inspecting it by hand!

Chris Monroe, a professor at the University of Maryland and recipient of the 2015 Arthur Schawlow Prize in Laser Science, is working on building modular quantum computers using a 1-dimensional array of trapped ions. An alumni of the Ion Storage group at the National Institute of Standards & Technology, I realized that we were connected by a common mentor, David Wineland (the 2012 Nobel Laureate in Physics). A scheduling mishap lead to us missing each other at the conference, but he kindly took the time to Skype with me a few days later. Asked about mentors that he felt were particularly influential, he cited Wineland and his doctoral advisor, Carl Wieman (the 2001 Nobel Laureate in Physics). Of Wineland, Monroe said that “he always had a sense for good problems to go after”. This made sense, knowing the history of the group: Wineland and company, in heroic efforts to make the best atomic clocks possible in the 70’s, developed the tools to make the first quantum logic gates in the 90’s. Monroe was a part of those efforts, and continues on in the quest towards a quantum computer. Of Wieman, Monroe explained he had a remarkable intuition about what was important and what was not in experimental data; Wieman could “point at patterns and say ‘why is that there?’ and figure out if it was signal or not; and if it was just noise, if it mattered or not.”

Another person with a common mentor I got to meet was Cedric Wilson, a senior at the University of Utah who did an REU in the lab I work in during the school year. Conversational and outgoing, Cedric and I connected immediately. Wandering around San Jose, we got bubble tea and bonded over common experiences in science (while also commiserating about graduate school and fellowship applications). He enjoyed the conference as much as I did, and sitting by the pool at our motel, sharing our stories and why we were pursuing physics, the real power of science—to bring people together across different backgrounds and generations under common passions—was on full display.

One episode summed up the conference experience for me. Overlooking a magnificent reception in San Jose city hall for the international year of light, Society of Physics Students national director Sean Bentley shared a few words with me. He explained that there is a growing level of student support and understanding of the role of mentorship in the physics community: “Good students don’t just arrive at graduate school out of nowhere,” he explained. “You have to train them from the undergraduate level on.” I have been extremely fortunate to benefit from the assistance of so many people along the way. Considering this, the words of Isaac Newton feel particularly relevant: “If I have seen farther than others, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” My experience at Frontiers in Optics has cemented my desire to pay it forward.

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SPS Reporter Steven Torrisi.

SPS reporter Steven Torrisi presenting his research at the Undergraduate Symposium. Photo by Ananya S.

From left to right: Ananya S., Cedric W., Julia K., and the author. Ananya and Julia are optics students at the University of Rochester with the author.