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Scientists & Engineers On Sofas (And Other Furnishings): Ultrafast Lasers And Archimedes

7 minutes

(Describer) In an animation, two people carry a sofa, then drop it. Two legs on one side of it break. The people walk away. Title: Scientists and Engineers on Sofas and Other Furnishings. A chain and hook from the first E in “Engineers” lifts the fallen side of the sofa.

(Describer) Bubbles drift in glowing green light.

(woman) Okay, lasers are cool. They're incredibly colorful and unbelievably powerful. Who wouldn't want to know more? I'm Ivy Kupec, and I work at the National Science Foundation. When I heard the esteemed, NSF-funded physicist and laser inventor Margaret Murnane would be a distinguished lecturer, I seized the chance to talk with her about these technological marvels and, specifically, her lab's research. Margaret, what a great talk on lasers.

(Describer) After her talk...

I really enjoyed it. Thank you, Ivy. The audience was terrific. Could we grab a cup of tea and talk more? Sounds wonderful. Thank you.

(Describer) Soon after, they head to a bank of elevators, and Ivy pushes a button for a floor. They chat as they walk down a hall. Later, they sit.

So, I'm curious what specifically drew you to lasers initially. I'm guessing not laser hair removal. No, that's right. That's right. Lasers are cool. I was drawn to science by the first realization that somebody could be excited about an idea. I was about eight years old, and my dad had brought home a book on science that had a picture of Archimedes having jumped out of the bathtub, and this idea that somebody could get so excited they would run through the streets yelling, "Eureka," just because of an idea, and also forget to put on their clothes. But before that I had thought that science class was about learning things, and it just never occurred to me that it was about inventing or discovering something.

(Describer) In a film...

Pretty wonderful, eh, Archimedes?

(Describer) With Ivy:

I was an undergrad in Ireland and we had some-- back then we had simple lasers to play with, but just that beam of light, how it scattered. In a dark room, you could see pinpoints of light everywhere. That was attractive to me, but what I didn't understand at the time is I didn't have to just use lasers, I could invent lasers. Has there always been this focus on really high speed, short burst lasers, like what you work on? That's the focus of my area of research. Very early on in making what we call now femtosecond lasers, or lasers where we compress all the energy into short bursts of light. I was excited, being able to build my own lasers, and invent more powerful versions of them.

(Kupec) What does the difference in laser color mean?

(Murnane) At the supermarket, there's the red laser scanner. Sometimes it's difficult to read the bar code. That's the laser we're familiar with. It has a very pure color. It's pure red. The green laser pointers-- that has a very pure green. You can think about them as the equivalent of sound with a very pure tone. Hmm. But think about in a clash of sound, you get many frequencies or harmonics. Similarly with a laser, if you want to make a short light burst, you must add many different colors together, but that also makes it beautiful. So, these are very short bursts of light that we can use to understand the fundamental processes in nature. We can also use those same short light bursts to make very clean cuts. That's great for-- for example, eye surgeries or for cutting very precisely. With short bursts of light, we can concentrate the energy both in space and time. Is the lab's focus more on developing new ways to use lasers, or is it on looking for a better, faster, shorter burst kind of laser? Both. We have some sets of students developing the next best X-ray lasers, and other students who are trying to figure out how do we measure things really precisely by using laser light. We've got excellent control over that light, so we can measure motions that are much smaller than an atomic dimension. Essentially, you could almost think about our lab as developing new types of cameras and making movies, but not of real people like you and me sitting here, Ivy, but of the nano-world or the nano-molecules. Now, you made a really nice statement in your talk about how a student's not a scientist... until they make a discovery. I love that. Absolutely. So, one of our students when we were back in Michigan, he made a discovery and it was maybe 1:00 a.m. in the morning, and he had his Eureka moment, so he ran everywhere and he yelled until somebody in a lab came out. Then he said, "I made this discovery," so he could share it. Because when they do have a Eureka moment, you have to share it with somebody. You want to communicate, "Oh my goodness, I just figured this out." You know that they're a scientist when they recognize they've made it, and then they know why it is important. That's when you really know that we have a new scientist. I appreciate your spending time after your talk. This is great. Thank you for a wonderful chat, Ivy. Now I go catch a plane.

[both laugh]

(Describer) They shake hands. The title Scientists and Engineers on Sofas and Other Furnishings is pushed aside by the round logo for the National Science Foundation. Title: NSF dot gov. Funding to purchase and make this educational program accessible was provided by the U.S. Department of Education. Contact the Department of Education by telephone at 1-800-USA-LEARN, or online at www.ed.gov.

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When it comes to ultrafast lasers, Margaret Murnane’s name is one of the best known for her work in this field of science. Since 1999, she has been a professor at the University of Colorado’s National Science Foundation funded JILA Physics Frontier Center, where she and her husband, Henry Kapteyn, pioneer research in ultrafast x-ray science. Part of the Scientists and Engineers On Sofas Series.

Media Details

Runtime: 7 minutes

Scientists & Engineers On Sofas (And Other Furnishings)
Episode 1
8 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Scientists & Engineers On Sofas (And Other Furnishings)
Episode 2
9 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Scientists & Engineers On Sofas (And Other Furnishings)
Episode 3
6 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Scientists & Engineers On Sofas (And Other Furnishings)
Episode 4
6 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Scientists & Engineers On Sofas (And Other Furnishings)
Episode 5
7 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Scientists & Engineers On Sofas (And Other Furnishings)
Episode 6
8 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12