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April 13, 2007

Spend some time with a superstar in our vast world of science

Ron Reifenberger
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Athletes, politicians and movie stars seem to define what it means to gain celebrity status in our star-crossed culture today. Media will swarm to take their pictures, to capture their latest pronouncements about life, politics or religion - whether or not they have anything significant to say.

A true American celebrity will be in the limelight on April 16 at Loeb Playhouse on the Purdue University campus. But it's not for his performance on a baseball field, a political campaign or the movie screen.

John Hall gained notoriety in the scientific community over four decades in a physics research laboratory. And he will tell his story to a campus audience as part of the Honeywell-Nobel Laureate Initiative, offered in conjunction with Purdue's Discovery Lecture Series.

Hall's advancements have been essential to the development of the laser as a precision measurement tool that, among other things, allows scientists to probe tiny structures inside living cells, to study the properties of ultracold matter and to examine electron behavior in semiconductors.

Because of Hall's research, we now can more precisely transmit time and frequency information from atomic clocks, directly measure the frequency of visible light and investigate phenomena that, before now, was too small or too fast to see, let alone precisely quantify. Winners from Hall's efforts are those in the world of global-positioning systems and X-ray frequencies.

For a lifetime committed to advancing the role that physics plays in our daily lives, Hall received a share of the Nobel Prize for physics in 2005.

During the 1960s, Hall helped develop a methane-stabilized helium-neon laser through a project launched in conjunction with a famous experiment by the U.S. Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology. The instrument measured the speed of light at least 100 times better than any previous effort, and it ultimately led to a fundamental redefinition of the meter, the basic unit of distance measurement.

Since winning the Nobel Prize for physics two years ago, Hall has devoted more and more of his time to encouraging students and others - no matter what their technical level of scientific understanding - to think about the wonders of science and research.

His speeches at university campuses cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from the basics of how to train for a scientific or technical career all the way to the importance of high-precision measurement in advancing science. By careful attention to all of these topics throughout his career, Hall has gained global recognition by winning the Nobel Prize.

For years, Hall has lived by the fundamental precept that students young and old learn by doing. By harnessing a desire and a curiosity for deeper truth and understanding of our world, Hall's lectures and informal discussions with students and faculty resonate with those all around him.

His gift to academia is to provide a glimpse of the passion that drove him to his research laboratory every day.

It's made clearer when you hear Hall's initial reaction to being notified during the early-morning hours of Oct. 4, 2005, that he had would be sharing the Nobel Prize for physics. He had helped develop a laser-based precision spectroscopy to improve how we can measure atoms and molecules accurately.

"I'm rewarded hugely by the chance to be employed and keep building nice tools that somehow fit together with the ones that I made last week or a month ago. And to be paid to do that as a salary is a great benefit; and to win a prize for it is ... beyond astonishing," he said.

A modest man known as "Jan" by his colleagues, Hall might allow those in the audience at Purdue to take his picture - and not for just the first few minutes of his free public lecture or his tour of Discovery Park. He might even take the time to sign a few autographs.

*  Ron Reifenberger is a physics professor at Purdue University and head of the Kevin G. Hall Nanometrology Laboratory at Discovery Park's Birck Nanotechnology Center.

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