2009 Emerging Leaders

Ian B. Spielman

Pioneered a new area of research that is helping scientists understand crucial, but currently intractable, mysteries of physics like the explanation of high-temperature superconductivity.

It can be hard for a layperson to understand Ian Spielman’s research. But you don’t have to be a Nobel Prize winning physicist to figure out that this National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) scientist is a unique talent who is helping to unravel some of physics’ greatest unsolved mysteries.

Of course, being a Nobel Prize winning physicist certainly enhances one’s appreciation of Dr. Spielman’s gifts, as evidenced by William Phillips, who won physics’ biggest prize in 1997 and also happens to be Dr. Spielman’s boss.

“None of the people we have at NIST are mediocre. They are all very good,” said Dr. Phillips. “But when somebody who is so far above that comes along, it’s amazing to watch.”

James Eisenstein, who was Dr. Spielman’s Ph.D. advisor at Cal Tech, agrees that Ian stands out, even in elite company. Having taught some of the world’s best science students, Dr. Eisenstein describes Dr. Spielman as “the most prepared to be a top-flight scientist.”

Ian Spielman bypassed a more financially lucrative offer from his prestigious alma mater to work at NIST, a nonregulatory agency that promotes America’s economic competitiveness through the advancement of measurement science. The virtues of research at a government lab were clear to Dr. Spielman, whose father, also Dr. Spielman, worked for many years at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“At NIST, I get to be a scientist all the time,” said Dr. Spielman. “I also like the idea of doing something that could impact U.S. industry and really have a long-term potential payoff for society.”

One potential implication of Dr. Spielman’s research is an explanation of high-temperature superconductivity, which enables the lossless transmission of electricity. Figuring out how to make superconductivity work at room temperature could have tremendous implications, from significantly reduced energy costs to the increased accessibility of medical devices like MRIs.

“Superconductivity is the Holy Grail of Ian’s field of research,” said NIST physics lab director Katharine Gebbie. “It’s still many years away, but Ian is laying the foundation for understanding superconductivity.”

So what exactly is it that Dr. Spielman is doing?

Many of the technological advances of the 20th century sprang from mathematical models that require sophisticated computer simulations of solid materials. But many phenomena, like superconductivity, are too complex to be simulated by even the world’s most powerful computers.

Dr. Spielman has developed a new way to create physical models to test theories about how physical systems will behave under certain conditions. More specifically, he has devised ways to manipulate atoms to mimic the behaviors of solid materials. Measuring these systems and how they behave explains the mathematical models and helps researchers understand intractable problems, which can’t be calculated.

Dr. Spielman’s experiments have been published in Physical Review Letters, the preeminent publication in the physics world, and his research has drawn international attention.

One big thing that sets Dr. Spielman apart from his peers is his expertise in multiple disciplines of physics. Most physicists specialize in one area, such as particle physics or nuclear physics. Dr. Spielman is an expert in both condensed material physics and atomic physics, having gotten his Ph.D. in the former.

“Ian is a poster boy for a new approach to physics where the boundaries of subdisciplines are blurred,” said Dr. Phillips. “Very often, interdisciplinary work is where the big breakthroughs happen. Ian is a vanguard of this movement.”

In the end, perhaps the biggest key to Dr. Spielman’s success is his energy and risk-taking approach.

“I love to do research that is both high-risk and high-value,” said Dr. Spielman.

James Eisenstein calls him “fearless in the lab,” and “the most energetic young guy I’ve ever met.”

Without this aggressive approach, one of his most notable experiments might never have occurred. When he first proposed a new approach for atoms to mimic charged particles, like electrons, in magnetic fields, Dr. Spielman’s Nobel laureate supervisor told him it wouldn’t work. Barely 30-years-old, Dr. Spielman stood behind his calculations. He pressed forward with his experiment and was proven correct.

No one was more delighted by his success than William Phillips. “He’s just so damn smart,” said Phillips of his mentee. “There is no limit to his potential.”

Dr. Ian Spielman has already worked alongside some of the world’s most respected physicists. This young government scientist appears well on his way to joining their ranks.