Kleppner is 1996 Killian Lecturer


The 1995-96 Killian Award Lecturer is Dr. Daniel Kleppner, Lester Wolfe Professor of Physics and associate director of the Research Laboratory of Electronics.

The announcement of Professor Kleppner's selection as recipient of the James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award was made Wednesday (April 19) at the monthly faculty meeting by Professor George W. Clark, chairman of the faculty selection committee. The other committee members were Professors Ernst R. Berndt, Anita Desai, George Stephanopoulos and Gerald L. Wilson.

The Killian Award recognizes extraordinary professional accomplishments and service to MIT. It was established in 1971 as a tribute to the late Dr. Killian, MIT's 10th president and former chairman of the Corporation. The award carries an $8,000 honorarium and its recipient traditionally delivers a lecture in the spring term of the award year.

The selection committee's citation said that Professor Kleppner's "discoveries, inventions and contributions in atomic physics place him at the forefront of a science which is one of the foundations of modern technology.

"He is noted throughout the profession for his ability to communicate his ideas about science and its significance for society," the committee added. "He has given generously of his time and effort to the formation of national science policy, and he has served the Institute with distinction as teacher, administrator and counselor."

Recounting the highlights of Professor Kleppner's career, the committee noted that "at the very start of his professional career, in his PhD thesis at Harvard, Professor Kleppner discovered that coherent cesium atoms can bounce from properly prepared surfaces without losing their coherence. That discovery is the foundation for his invention, with Norman Ramsey, of the hydrogen maser in which hydrogen atoms, bouncing about in a microwave cavity, stabilize the frequency of a clock to a precision better than one microsecond in a year. Such clocks have found wide application in science and industry, one example being long-baseline microwave interferometry that reveals the micro-arc second structure of distant radio sources."

The central theme of Professor Kleppner's varied research has been the interactions of atoms with static electric and magnetic fields and radiation.

In the 1970s, the committee said, Professor Kleppner pioneered the study of "Rydberg atoms" in which the outermost electron of an alkali atom is excited by tickling with a dye laser to a state of such high quantum number that its wave function swells to a micron in radius. Rydberg atoms approach the original Bohr vision of a planetary electron circulating in a kind of microscopic solar system. In that semi-classical regime he has discovered strange phenomena on the border between classical and quantum physics, such as regularities in the complex patterns of quantum states that are the counterparts of chaos in non-linear classical dynamics.

"He has suppressed the spontaneous decay of excited atoms, previously thought to be inexorable, by imprisoning them in cavities that lack the oscillatory modes to receive their emissions. His theory and demonstration of that suppression have opened the way to a new field of research and to the invention of novel kinds of lasers and photonic devices," the committee noted.

"His collaborative effort with Professor Tom Greytak is now approaching the promised land of a Bose-Einstein condensation of spin-polarized hydrogen atoms with exquisitely delicate and difficult experiments at ultra-low temperatures."

These and other research achievements have won Professor Kleppner wide recognition and honors in the international community of atomic physicists. He has won the Davisson-Germer prize of the American Physical Society and the Meggers Award of the Optical Society of America. Since 1990 he has been chairman of the Commission on Atomic and Molecular Physics of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics. He serves on the Panel on Public Affairs and chairs the Physics Planning Committee of the American Physical Society. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

The citation continued:

"When Professor Kleppner gives the 1996 Killian Award lecture next year we know he will tell about his work in the style of communication for which he is also famous-lucid, engaging and humorous. As a Phi Beta Kappa lecturer and Lillienfeld awardee of the American Physical Society, Professor Kleppner has lectured with brilliant success to non-specialists around the country. For the past several years readers of Physics Today have enjoyed the incisive commentary and subtle humor of his Reference Frame column. In a recent reply to the anti-science positions of several prominent and influential people he wrote, `Any scenario for a decent future of our nation and the world must include a reasonable component of science that is devoted to the search for new knowledge. We cannot afford to abandon this vision under a barrage of criticism, no matter how eloquent or powerful the critics.'

"Professor Kleppner has emulated Dr. Killian in his service to MIT and society. In the physics community he is renowned for extraordinary efforts on behalf of atomic physics and so-called small science through his work on the Brinkman report on the future directions of physics research, his articles, and his congressional testimony and lobbying. Indeed, his professional colleagues awarded him a special trophy showing a golden baseball player, bat at the ready, with the inscription `Dan Kleppner-Who went to bat for Atomic Physics.' His Introduction to Mechanics, written with Robert Kolenkow, has been a wonderfully clear and sophisticated text for generations of physics freshman at MIT and elsewhere. He. serves in the special position of Ombudsman of the Physics Department, a position that calls on his qualities as a wise and caring counselor to whom a person can turn for advice and recourse."

Dr. Kleppner received bachelor degrees from Williams College in 1953 and Cambridge University in 1955, and the PhD from Harvard in 1960.

He was an assistant professor of physics at Harvard from 1962 to 1966, when he joined the MIT faculty as associate professor of physics. He was promoted to professor in 1974. He headed the department's Division of Atomic, Plasma and Condensed Matter Physics from 1976 to 1979. He was named Lester Wolfe Professor of Physics in 1985.

Dr. Kleppner is the co-author of two textbooks. His research interests are in experimental atomic physics, high-precision measurements and quantum optics. His current research interests include quantum chaos, studies of hydrogen at extremely low temperatures, and ultra-precise laser spectroscopy.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 26, 1995.


Topics: Awards, honors and fellowships, Faculty

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