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Professor Philip Russell (left) Dr William Wadsworth (right) and Professor Jonathan Knight (rear)
Professor Philip Russell (left) Dr William Wadsworth (right) and Professor Jonathan Knight (rear)
photo by Nic Delves-Broughton

Press Release - 12 October 2005

Bath researchers contribute to Nobel-winning discovery

Work by University of Bath physicists played a crucial part in the discovery that has won a German physicist, Theodor Hänsch, this year’s Nobel Prize in physics.

Professor Hänsch, was one of three physicists working in the field of quantum optics to share the £730,000 prize earlier this month, and was given the award for his work using lasers to carry out very precise frequency measurements.

A precise measurement of these is very important for applications such as improvement of the precision of atomic clocks and will have many practical implications such as improving GPS satellite navigation systems.

In order to measure frequencies very precisely, Professor Hänsch, of Ludwig-Maximilians University and the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching near Munich, devised a method that uses extremely short laser pulses to create a precise “ruler” of frequencies.

As part of this, he teamed up with Professor Philip Russell, Professor Jonathan Knight and Dr William Wadsworth of the University of Bath’s Department of Physics. By using the photonic crystal fibre technology pioneered within the Department, Professor Hänsch was able to demonstrate that frequency measurements can be thousands of times more precise than previously possible.

The result of this work is that the frequency of electromagnetic radiation can now be measured accurately to about one part in every million billion. This will result in extremely accurate clocks and could greatly improve the way that the constants of nature, such as the speed of light, can be measured over time.

A photonic crystal fibre is a long thread of glass with a regular arrangement of air channels running through it, resulting in unusual optical properties. The University of Bath researchers are pioneers in the development and exploitation of such fibres, which can harness the power of light in new ways, enhancing existing applications and leading to many new ones.

The work of the Photonic and Photonic Material’s Group at Bath led to its former head, Professor Philip Russell, being given the UK’s highest science award, a Fellowship of the Royal Society, earlier this year. The breakthrough paper in collaboration with Professor Hänsch, “Optical frequency Synthesizer for Precision Spectroscopy” was published in Physical Review Letters in September 2000.

In itself, the photonics research at Bath is expected to have a major impact in many areas of engineering and technology, including light sources, optical telecommunications, ultra-violet light and x-ray generation, atomic and quantum physics and astronomical imaging.

Professor Jonathan Knight said: “The award of the Nobel Prize for Physics in part to Professor Hänsch is fully justified by the importance of the work he has been doing to develop much more accurate and elegant measurement techniques.

“We are very pleased that our work here at the University of Bath has played a part in this achievement, and we believe that our work on photonics will have profound implications for our world in the future.”

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