2006 Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement

William D. Phillips

Launched an entirely new subfield of atomic, molecular and optical physics and became the first federal employee to win the Nobel Prize for Physics for work done as part of his official duties.

If you’ve won the Nobel Prize for Physics, where do you go from there? If you’re Dr. William Phillips, you go to a local meeting of the Girl Scouts. High school science fairs are also popular venues, as are churches and senior centers. And Monday through Friday, you still go to your job in the federal government. That’s not the typical answer one might expect, but Dr. William Phillips is not your typical Nobel Laureate.

The head of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Laser Cooling and Trapping Group, Dr. Phillips was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997, making him the first federal employee to ever win the Physics Prize for work done as part of his official duties. Phillips is internationally known for advancing basic knowledge and new techniques to chill atoms to extremely low temperatures. The cooling and trapping of atoms, a discipline that emerged in the mid-1970s with the advent of laboratory lasers, has allowed scientists to observe and measure quantum phenomena in atoms that seem to defy the physical principles governing our tangible room-temperature realm.

Phillips’ work is considered critical to pushing the limits of measurement science and laying the foundations for the basic measurement technology required by U.S. science and industry. His research has already led to dramatically improved measurements of time, likely to be needed by U.S. industry in the development of economically beneficial advanced technologies in the next century.

Phillips and his team are continuing to study ultra-cold trapped atoms with spin-off applications for improved accuracy in atomic clocks and in the pursuit of quantum information processing, which has important implications for national security.

While Dr. Phillips certainly has earned the respect of his peers for his scientific achievements, his colleagues seem to be more impressed by the quality of his character.

When he won his Nobel Prize, he made a personal commitment to use his newfound notoriety to promote the thrill of science and public service.  Over the past four years alone, he has given more than 140 official talks across the country and throughout Europe. On his own time he frequently speaks to the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, churches, schools and science fairs. Some might think this would be beneath a scientist of his stature, but Phillips’ view is, “How could I tell anyone that his or her organization wasn’t worth my time?”

Throughout his 27 year career at NIST, Dr. Phillips has been recognized as an outstanding supervisor and mentor of graduate students and postdocs. His management philosophy was that “one can do physics at the frontiers, competing with the best in the world, and do it with openness, humanity and cooperation.” Scientists from all around the globe come to NIST to work in his lab, and Phillips has three other senior scientists on his team who have all earned international reputations of their own under his tutelage.

Dr. William Phillips is famous for research that seems to defy some of the basic laws of physics. But perhaps equally impressive is this Nobel Prize winner’s humility that seems to defy the basic laws of human behavior. Dr. Phillips is the epitome of what people want in our public service, and even though he would never admit it, he is a national treasure.