2007 Emerging Leaders

Konrad Lehnert

Conducted groundbreaking research to use quantum mechanics to improve measurement science.

Dr. Konrad Lehnert has pushed the frontiers of measurement science up against the ultimate limits imposed by the famous Uncertainty Principle of quantum mechanics. To achieve such perfection would be a challenge for the most seasoned metrologist, yet within only a few years of starting his research program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Dr. Lehnert has established himself as a world leader in this discipline, which promises major advances in fields as diverse as electronic technology and homeland security. And one more thing – he’s only 36.

A perfectly precise measurement is fundamentally impossible because of a physical law known as the Uncertainty Principle. To understand this limit is to realize that any measurement must disturb the object being measured. For individual particles, such as atoms or photons, this effect is intuitive; the measurement tool is necessarily larger than the particle. Imagine trying to measure a speck of dust with a meter stick without disturbing it. What is less intuitive is that the limits imposed by the Uncertainty Principle are more readily reached on a single particle than on a physical object composed of a large number of atoms, albeit still a very small object, such as a microscopic probe.

Dr. Lehnert is one of the world’s leaders at the frontiers of measurement science trying to reach this limit on a small object. Lehnert’s work concentrates on two specific goals: measuring the motion of a microscopic mechanical beam and improving methods for detecting very weak microwave signals.

The microscopic mechanical beam project not only addresses fundamental questions in measurement science, but also builds the technology base for the rapid production of micrographs with atomic resolution. The combination of atomic resolution and speed, currently not available, could enable unprecedented, detailed studies of the growth of crystals, such as the semiconductor crystals used in computer chips. Building computers with quantum mechanics principles could lead to superfast machines, allowing much faster searches and more secure communication. The work on high sensitivity microwave detectors will find immediate application in astrophysics and ultimate application in homeland security detection.

On completing his postdoctoral research associateship in the Applied Physics Department at Yale, Dr. Lehnert had many opportunities for lucrative positions in industry and academia. Instead, he chose to pursue mission-oriented research at NIST, where he could apply his talents to advance measurement science in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. Starting from an empty laboratory a mere four years ago, Dr. Lehnert has already produced scientifically and technologically significant results. Of his 18 publications, four have appeared in Physical Review Letter, the most prestigious journal in physics, reserved for major advances with significant consequences across subdisciplines. Another article has appeared in Science, an international journal that publishes the finest peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology on the basis of originality, importance, interdisciplinary interest, timeliness, accessibility and surprising conclusions. Dr. Lehnert has ably demonstrated that mission-oriented, government research can be just as challenging, creative and significant as so-called curiosity-driven academic research.

Dr. Lehnert not only represents the next generation of great U.S. scientists, he is grooming other great young minds to follow his path. He currently supervises one undergraduate, three graduate students and one post-doc. These exceptional young people are free to choose with whom they work. In a lab that includes three Nobel Prize winners, these students chose to work with Dr. Lehnert. One student even chose to postpone the receipt of her PhD for a year so she could have the opportunity to work under Dr. Lehnert. 

By any measure, Dr. Konrad Lehnert is a national treasure. You don’t need a PhD in physics to figure that out.