Hau, Lene Vestergaard

Hau, Lene Vestergaard
▪ 2002

      In 2001 Danish scientist Lene Vestergaard Hau became one of the all-time most prominent women physicists when the journal Nature published a paper in which Hau and a team of physicists at the Rowland Institute for Science in Cambridge, Mass., described how they had sent a pulse of laser light into a tiny cloud of extremely cold gas, halted the light, stored it for a fraction of a second, and then released it. Though Hau's team was not the only one to achieve this feat, the latest research related to altering the speed of light had its roots in an experiment conducted by Hau in 1999. In that experiment Hau and her colleagues at the Rowland Institute shone lasers through a cloud of ultracold sodium atoms—known as a Bose-Einstein condensate—which effectively slowed light from its normal speed of about 299,792 km (186,282 mi) per second to 61 km (38 mi) per hour. It was believed that these advances could translate into practical applications that would substantially improve telecommunications and computers.

      Hau was born on Nov. 13, 1959, in Vejle, Den. From an early age she enjoyed mathematics, and she excelled at school, skipping the 10th grade. She entered Aarhus University, where she was drawn to studying physics owing to an interest in mathematics and quantum mechanics. She earned a B.S. degree in mathematics in 1984, an M.S. in physics in 1986, and a Ph.D. in physics in 1991, all from Aarhus University. Her studies included seven months at CERN in Geneva. She accepted a postdoctoral position on the faculty at Harvard University, where she later became the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics. Hau also took a position at the Rowland Institute, serving as principal investigator for the Atom Cooling Group. In 1994, working with Jene A. Golovchenko at the Rowland Institute, Hau developed one of the first elements that led to the slowing of light. Called a “candlestick,” the device wicks sodium atoms out of molten sodium metal and projects them into a cooling apparatus that, by using lasers, cools the atoms to a temperature 50 billionths of a degree above absolute zero.

      Hau attributed her success in a field dominated by men to her upbringing and her homeland. Her parents, she said, encouraged her in her studies just as much as they did her brother. In addition, in Denmark laypeople and other scientists regarded physicists highly, and research was sometimes funded by private interests. Hau herself had studied for a year on a scholarship subsidized by Carlsberg brewers.

Anthony G. Craine

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Universalium. 2010.

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