The Cold Reaches of Heaven

William Phillips, 54, a research physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is friendly and casual—with a beard, jeans, running shoes, and a ready smile. He walks quickly, talks quickly, and by all evidence thinks very quickly. All this might be expected from a world-class scientist who has a lot to do, but still it seems a small irony: This man in a hurry has spent more than two decades pursuing the physics of slow.

Phillips' field of expertise is called laser cooling, which involves using lasers to drastically slow the movement of atoms. Slower atoms are cooler atoms. How cool? Phillips and his fellow researchers have gotten down to temperatures a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero: the coldest temperatures in the universe. For this work Phillips and two others received the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics.

One of Phillips' first public acts after hearing the news was to thank God for "giving us such a wonderful and interesting universe to explore." Some were surprised to hear such a spiritual sentiment from a physicist. But Phillips, an active member of a multiracial Methodist church for more than 20 years, is fully at ease with being both a scientist and a person of faith.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2003
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