Report poses six challenges, offers six recommendations

Considering Eisenberg’s observation that uncertainty lies at the base of quantum phenomena, the title of a National Research Council (NRC) report slated for publication this fall, “Controlling the Quantum World” sounds a bit odd.

Oct 1st, 2006
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Hassaun A. Jones-Bey

Considering Eisenberg’s observation that uncertainty lies at the base of quantum phenomena, the title of a National Research Council (NRC) report slated for publication this fall, “Controlling the Quantum World” sounds a bit odd. The double entendre in the report title was intentional, however, according to Timothy Meyer, a senior program officer on the staff of the NRC of the National Academies of Science (NAS; Washington, D.C.).

NIST-F1 is a cesium-fountain atomic clock in Boulder, CO, that, along with other international atomic clocks, helps define the official world time standard. In 2000 the uncertainty in the clock’s accuracy was about 1 x 10-15, but by the summer of 2005, the uncertainty was reduced to about 5 x 10-16 (see
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The focus of the report was not just on capturing the excitement of emerging quantum science, but also on highlighting emerging capabilities for developing products and technologies based on using quantum tools to control other quantum processes.

In this context, the report identifies what the committee saw as “the most promising future opportunities in atomic, molecular, and optical (AMO) science based on what is known at this time.” Within this framework, the report describes six broad challenge areas as “the most fertile avenues” for AMO research in the coming decade:

  • Technologies for controlling the coherence of ultrafast lasers and ultracold atoms are offering increasingly precise measurements of the nature of space and time (see figure).
  • Ultracold AMO physics leading to the development of coherent quantum gases offers potential avenues for solving fundamental problems in condensed matter science and in plasma physics.
  • High-intensity and short-wavelength sources such as new x-ray free-electron lasers promise significant advances in AMO science, condensed-matter physics and materials research, chemistry, medicine, and defense-related science.
  • Ultrafast quantum control is expected to unveil the internal motion of atoms within molecules and of electrons within atoms, thereby sparking a revolution in the imaging and coherent control of quantum processes.
  • Quantum engineering on the nanoscale of tens to hundreds of atomic diameters has led to new opportunities for atom-by-atom control of quantum structures.
  • Quantum information science may eventually reveal new paradigms in data security and encryption.

AMO science is a collection of many experiments, research projects, and investigations, Meyer said. The significance of the NRC report is that the committee has distilled all of this into six topics that span the breadth of excitement in the field. The six topics obviously don’t cover everything, but they represent and present AMO science in a small number of ideas that can offer a reasonable overview.

Committee members have made presentations of an interim report for a year or so at professional meetings, such as meetings of the American Physical Society and the Optical Society of America, and have obtained supportive feedback that was incorporated in the final document, Meyer said.

The report also links opportunities for AMO science and technology with national R&D goals, as described in President George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address in January 2006 and his budget request for FY2007, which include improving quality of life, addressing national security, homeland security, energy, and environmental issues, spurring economic competitiveness and job growth, and enhancing health-care capabilities.

Giving more to get more

The report also addresses challenges in science and funding that appear to be growing apace with the rapid acceleration of scientific progress. For instance, AMO science might have also been called AMP for atoms, molecules, and photons, because of the increasingly essential role of photons in investigating atoms and molecules. Supplying such photons, however, requires increasingly bright and coherent light sources.

“The extremely rapid increase in technical capabilities and the associated increase in the cost of scientific instrumentation have led to very significant added pressures (over and above the usual Consumer Price Index inflationary pressures) on research group budgets,” write the authors in the executive summary. “In addition, not only has the cost of instrumentation increased, but also the complexity and challenge of the science makes investigation much more expensive. So it is now possible to imagine research that was unimaginable in the past, but finding resources to pursue that research is becoming increasingly difficult.”

The authors also emphasize the essential role of theoretical research in a rapidly growing field of science, and argue that despite the enabling role of AMO science in astrophysics and plasma physics, support for AMO science by funding agencies charged with responsibility for those areas remain inadequate.

Similar to previous reports, such as the NAS “Gathering Storm” (see, the committee also notes the “dangerously low” percentage of American students choosing careers in the physical sciences.

Government funding

Government funding-particularly increases at the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation-has played an important supporting role for AMO research activities, according to the report.

“The overall balance of the modalities for support of the field has led to outstanding scientific payoffs,” the committee wrote. “In addition, the breadth of AMO science and the range of the agencies that support it are exceedingly important to future progress in the field and have been a key factor in its success so far.”

The committee expressed concern, however, at the decline in research funding in general and in basic research funding in particular, at Department of Defense agencies. Based on its findings, the committee offered six recommendations:

  • The federal government should embark on a substantially increased investment program to improve education in the physical sciences and mathematics at all levels and to strengthen significantly the research effort.
  • The federal government should support programs in AMO science across disciplinary boundaries and through a multiplicity of agencies.
  • The Department of Defense should reverse recent declines in support for basic research at its agencies.
  • The federal government should recognize the extremely rapid increase in the technical capability and cost of scientific instrumentation and plan funding budgets accordingly.
  • Funding agencies should reexamine their portfolios in AMO science to ensure that the effort is at proper strength in workforce and funding level.
  • The federal government should implement incentives to encourage more American students to study the physical sciences and take up careers in the field. It should continue to attract foreign students to study physical sciences and strongly encourage them to continue their scientific careers in the United States.

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