UVM Physics Professor Helps NOVA Hit Zero
Release Date: 01-08-2008
Dennis Clougherty, UVM professor of physics, knows a lot about what happens when the temperature plunges toward zero. He’s not talking about the end of a January thaw. He’s interested in what happens near real zero, as in minus 459.67 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. Down there, say at one billionth of a degree above absolute zero, things get strange.
“I have been involved in theoretical research of ultracold atoms since 1990, when together with Walter Kohn, we shed light on a puzzle concerning how ultracold atoms can be repelled from surfaces even though the fundamental interaction is attractive (the effect is known as ‘quantum reflection’),” Clougherty notes. “I have also made contributions to research in superconductivity, another effect that is seen at low temperatures.”
That’s why he’s been working as a scientific advisor to a new two-part NOVA television special, “Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold,” based on a book by Tom Shachtman.
The PBS program airs nationwide tonight, Tuesday, January 8, at 8:00, including on Vermont Public Television. Part 2 will air January 15.
More information about the program--and its educational campaign that Clougherty has been part of--are available at: http://www.absolutezerocampaign.org/index.htm.
“My role as scientific expert was primarily in education and promotion of the program,” he said. For example, he gave about 80 students from Edmunds Middle School in Burlington an on-campus demonstration of the effects of liquid nitrogen (a balmy minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit) in November, including shattering tennis balls and levitating magnets.
The NOVA program is mostly an historical account, beginning in the 1600s, of how civilization has been deeply changed by mastering the cold. Without this research, “we wouldn't have air conditioning, refrigeration, modern rocket propellants, or maglev trains,” Clougherty notes.
Only a small portion of the program, mostly in the second part, discusses current research in low temperature physics. So Clougherty’s role as science advisor has not been in content production. “Rather, my contribution is in publicizing the program. This involves making presentations, giving demonstrations, and answering email questions on low temperature physics from the public,” he said.
“The program really serves to underscore the importance of research in low temperature physics, a longstanding interest of mine,” he said.