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Ryan Thomas

Physicist’s focus less than zero

June 10, 2010

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Ryan Thomas graduates this month with an honours B.Sc. in physics, a remarkable 4.23 cumulative grade-point average and a Governor General’s silver medal for academic excellence.

He has also earned three graduate scholarships, including a $17,500 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research award.

But it’s his experiments in the realm of absolute zero—the ultimate in cold—that have quantum physicists taking notice.

Thomas is the first Canadian scientist outside Ontario to create the Bose-Einstein condensate, a strange state of matter existing at a few billionths of a degree Celsius above absolute zero.

First predicted in 1924-25 by Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein, and created in 1995 by 2001 Nobel laureates Eric Cornell, Carl Wieman and Wolfgang Ketterle, the eerie material—not gas, liquid or solid—is the coldest known substance in existence.

Understanding its properties could advance the creation of quantum computers that perform calculations based on the behaviour of extremely cold sub-atomic particles.

For his master’s thesis at the University of Calgary, Thomas will use his understanding of how light and atomic gases interact to design and create all-optical routers capable of driving quantum communication networks.

Thomas was one of only 100 budding scientists invited to attend this year’s Rising Stars of Research conference, which showcases the brightest young minds in the natural, social and engineering sciences.

Thomas credits assistant physics professors Paul Haljan and Jeffrey McGuirk for his academic success. “I don’t think I can understate the importance of being able to gain research experience doing optical and atomic experiments in my professors’ labs,” he says.

“Ryan was a pleasure and a challenge for his professors,” says McGuirk. “His groundwork in creating and understanding new forms of matter will continue for years to come.”

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