ARCHIVED - A Miraculous Century: Celebrating NRC Achievements in Physics

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January 06, 2006— Ottawa, Ontario

In 1905, Albert Einstein revolutionized the world of physics with his legendary articles that proved the existence of atoms, launched quantum theory, and gave us a completely new picture of space and time. The World Year of Physics in 2005 celebrated the 100th anniversary of Einstein's "miraculous year," and the miracles achieved between then and now, through the hard work of physicists around the world.

Since its creation in 1916, NRC has supported physics in Canada, and beginning in 1925, NRC conducted physics and astrophysics research in its own laboratories. During the Second World War (often called "a physicist's war"), NRC took the lead in Canada's wartime R&D with pioneering research on radar, nuclear energy and optics.

Over the years, NRC has helped to create pioneering Canadian facilities in physics and astrophysics, such as the Canadian Light Source, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. NRC's early nuclear energy program formed the basis for Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. NRC also led creation of the Solid State Optoelectronics Consortium, which established wavelength demultiplexing - a technology at the core of today's optical communications networks.

Physics Achievements at NRC

"There's a lot to be proud of at NRC," says Dr. Walter Davidson, president of the Canadian Association of Physicists.

From microelectronics to the atmospheres of stars, NRC's achievements in physics have expanded our knowledge on many levels. Below are some examples of physics milestones at NRC.

The beginnings of time

NRC is Canada's official timekeeper. Since the 1950s, NRC has used cesium atomic clocks, which take advantage of the exquisite reproducibility of spinning atoms of the element cesium. NRC designed one of the world's first cesium clocks in 1958. But it was NRC's cesium clock built in 1975 – the first such clock that could run continuously and did not require calibration with any external clock – that was truly revolutionary. At the time, NRC's clock was the most accurate and stable clock in the world. NRC continues to reach new milestones in time standards with the cesium fountain atomic clock, and is pursuing even more promising optical frequency time standards.

Catching an electron's spin

Dr. Paul Corkum
Dr. Paul Corkum

Dr. Paul Corkum and his team at NRC have received worldwide honours for spectacular advances in probing atomic and molecular reactions. Many of these reactions are measured in femtoseconds (one 10-15 of a second). Dr. Corkum found a way to make atoms emit coherent x-ray bursts that were short enough to observe these unimaginably fast phenomena. Using this technique, researchers have created pulses as short as 150 attoseconds – one 10-18 of a second, or the time it takes an electron to make one orbit around a hydrogen atom. Dr. Corkum's work has opened a window to observe not just the motion of atoms, but the motion of electrons within atoms. He is considered the father of attosecond science.

A visionary in Canadian physics

Dr. Gerhard Herzberg
Dr. Gerhard Herzberg

One of Canada's most famous scientists, Dr. Gerhard Herzberg is known as the father of molecular spectroscopy – the study of the patterns of light emitted by atoms and molecules. Dr. Herzberg advanced spectroscopy into a powerful tool for investigating unknown areas of astrophysics, chemistry, biology and medicine. In astronomy alone, he helped unravel mysteries of the atmospheres of stars and planets. In 1971, Dr. Herzberg received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for a lifetime of achievement in molecular spectroscopy, culminating in his discovery of the spectrum of the free radical methylene - one of the elementary organic molecules. Dr. Herzberg's impact on spectroscopy is often compared to that of Sir Isaac Newton on gravity and motion.

The computer of the future

Dr. Robert Wolkow
Dr. Robert Wolkow

Transistors are used to control the flow of current in everything from computers to cell phones to appliances. Today's transistor technology makes it impossible to reduce the size of electronic devices beyond a certain point. Dr. Robert Wolkow has found a way to create transistors on a molecular scale, which could pave the way for smaller, faster and cheaper microelectronics devices. Dr. Wolkow and his team discovered how to switch the current flowing through a single molecule on and off by changing the charge state of an adjacent atom – essentially turning the molecule into a transistor. A technology based on this concept would use much less energy, produce less heat and run much faster than conventional technology.

The heart of matter

Dr. Bertram Brockhouse
Dr. Bertram Brockhouse

Dr. Bertram Brockhouse received the 1994 Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering work in neutron spectroscopy - a technique for probing all kinds of materials such as metals, ceramics, and polymers. During the early 1950s, while working at the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories of NRC's Atomic Energy Project, Dr. Brockhouse invented a specific field of spectroscopy that used neutrons to measure the movements of atoms within materials. He received the Nobel Prize many years later in recognition that from his pioneering work, neutron facilities are now essential pieces of the science infrastructure around the globe and have added greatly to our knowledge of materials in the world around us.

The centre of the neutrino universe

NRC played a lead role in creating the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) - the world's most powerful detector of tiny subatomic particles called neutrinos. SNO's revolutionary insights into the properties of neutrinos and the core of the sun have changed our fundamental understanding of elementary particles. SNO's discoveries are considered some of the most significant advances in particle physics and astrophysics in the last 25 years.

Beyond the limits of technology

Consumer demand for faster tools is driving electronics to the technological limit. Nano-spintronics is a relatively new field in which an electron's spin is used to increase the capabilities of devices and circuits. NRC researchers have found a way to control and detect the spin states of a single electron: either "spin up" or "spin down." This advance could make it possible for an electron's spin to act as the unit - or "bit" - of information. The "single-spin transistor" could revolutionize how information is stored and processed.

Energy for tomorrow

In 2005 and beyond, physics continues to change our view of the world, and promises to address global issues such as energy production, the environment and public health. NRC is moving forward with research into future technologies such as fuel cells – an environmentally friendly energy source from hydrogen. The NRC Fuel Cell Program brings together research expertise across Canada to create a future that is clean, safe and healthy.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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