I walked into my interview with Optics Professor Jospeh Eberly afraid I was going to be inundated with complex calculus and crazy proofs of theorems.
Eberly has over 350 publications to his name and just won the most prestigious award offered by the Optics Society of America, the 2010 Frederic Ives Medal.
When I asked him how he got into the field he said, ‘That’s a really good question, I don’t think anybody has ever asked me that before.”
That was the only question I could stump him on.

So our joint mission today is to make optics accessible to the UR undergraduate population. Do you think we can do that?
Well, I don’t want to make it what it’s not. I think what I tell the class all the time is that nature is intrinsically complex. Physics just fumbles around trying to find the solutions that work together the best. The best steps in physics are made inductively, intuitively pulling together concepts that aren’t obvious.

When you teach undergraduates, what kind of advice do you give them to deal with ambiguity in physics?
They of course want to have answers to questions. They want to be told how to find the answer the question. But in order to force the students to confront the fact that there will be facts that don’t matter, I have begun to use really stupid facts that clearly don’t belong there.

What is something people don’t know about optics labs at UR?
Well, some of the coldest places in the universe are downstairs in the physics labs. For context, outer space is 3 degrees Kelvin, the lab downstairs cools particles to 1/1-billion Kelvin.
That’s cold. Very strange things happen. Quantum things. Things are moving so slowly that when a particle makes a jump, it is very obvious.

What do you mean by quantum?
A quantum process is one that doesn’t change smoothly. If you look really carefully at a microscopic object you would find that it isn’t possible for it to change smoothly, but it would have to jump. A quantum is the smallest possible jump. It’s only observable in tiny objects like atoms or electrons.

How does this relate to optics?
A laser would be a good example of quantum optics. The energy for the laser has to come from somewhere and it comes from atoms. The energy comes in specific jumps called quanta [quantum is singular, quanta is plural]. And conservation of energy tells you that if energy is lost it must be turned into something. That something is a photon. Light that comes out of a laser is a series of photons.

So that’s why we see a single color coming out of a laser?
That’s why you get a green beam or a blue beam or a red beam. [The color] depends on the atoms that are inside of the laser because they all make the same jump.

You’re research is mainly theoretical right? Why is it so important?

Well, if you’re looking for an answer that is going to make someone a billionaire, then I don’t have it. But let’s think about computers. Computers are now a multibillion dollar annual industry. But where did computers come from? Well, computers came from computer chips, and where do those come from? Eventually it all goes back to transistors. Transistors won the Nobel Prize in Physics in the 1940s. Here we are 60 years later. Would those guys who invented, discovered really, the transistor have guessed that it would be a multitrillion dollar industry today?

So in another 40 to 50 years where do you see applications of your research?
One fascinating thing I have been studying is quantum entanglement, a concept introduced by Schrodinger and Einstein. [When we figure out] quantum entanglement [it] will make quantum computing possible. This is going to change in a very dramatic way everything that we know about computing and communication. It will have important consequences for our national security and financial markets.

What kind of person should study optics?
Well, everybody. Optics is good stuff.

Sahay is a member of the class of 2010.

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