This Winter Term, I'm working on a research project in atomic physics, where I use femtosecond frequency comb spectroscopy to learn more the atomic structure of potassium. I've been working with Jason Stalnaker, a professor here, who has been incredibly helpful and patient and knowledgeable and all the adjectives that are necessary for me to have a productive and enjoyable honors project.
Quick (and incomplete, sorry) explanation on what my project actually is:
femtosecond frequency comb = a laser that emits pulses of light instead of a continuous beam. The pulses are ~0.000000000000001 seconds long. (Sorry, I typed all those zeros to be obnoxious.) As a result of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which says that the shorter the pulse, the less certainty in frequency, instead of being a monochromatic laser, the comb spans a whole bunch of colors that are evenly spaced in frequency space. Once we stabilize the laser, the colors are so evenly spaced that we can use the laser as a sort of "frequency ruler" to measure frequencies of light to very high precision. Our goal is to measure the frequencies of light that excite potassium.
spectroscopy = characterizing matter by studying its spectra, i.e. the frequencies of light that it emits.
Why potassium? Potassium is an alkali metal, which means that it has only one valence electron. This means that it is relatively easy to model theoretically--ignoring the inner electrons, it is similar to hydrogen, the simplest atom. Thus, we can compare our experimental measurements to theoretical calculations for potassium.
Plus, this pulsed laser technique for spectroscopy is new and pretty cool in general, and it's been a highly informative and interesting lesson in atomic physics for me.
I've been working on this project since last spring semester, but this Winter Term is the first time that I've been able to dedicate the continuous chunk of time to this project that it deserves. While research during the semester gives you a nice taste of what science research entails, it's hard to actually be very productive because you can only work in 2-3 hour chunks twice a week. Our laser takes a couple hours before it settles down enough for us to take real measurements, so I've really been enjoying having the whole day to work on the project.
So what do I do when I'm not in lab? More about that next time.