A graduate of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Texas A&M University professor Alexei Sokolov has received the annual Willis E. Lamb Award for his outstanding contribution to the field of laser science and quantum optics. The award ceremony took place at the 50th Winter Colloquium on the Physics of Quantum Electronics, PQE-2020.
Sokolov received the award for his work in the area of molecular coherence phenomena, “for opening the field of molecular modulation with applications to molecular spectroscopy.”
“Atoms in molecules are like balls on springs and can oscillate at frequencies determined by their masses and the elasticity of the electronic ‘springs,’” Sokolov explains, commenting on his research. “Under certain conditions, such oscillations become coherent. The coherence of molecular vibrations describes a situation where a macroscopic number of molecules vibrate synchronously. For example, when oscillations are excited by a pair of laser pulses detuned from each other in frequency.”
“When the difference between these two laser frequencies is approximately equal to the natural frequency of molecular vibrations, all molecules start vibrating in phase with the electromagnetic field, and therefore with each other,” the physicist adds.
Such coherence of the molecular ensemble leads to interesting results. For example, synchronous vibrations of molecules, caused by the laser field, can modulate laser light, generating coherent pulses at frequencies that were not present in the original spectrum. This effect is used to obtain ever shorter light pulses, and is applied in high-sensitivity molecular spectroscopy. Molecular coherence enhances the optical signal and allows the identification of chemical compounds at low concentrations.
Alongside Sokolov, the co-recipients of this year’s prize were Stephen Harris from Stanford University and Christopher Monroe from the University of Maryland. “This award is a great honor, and a confirmation that I am doing important research that may be of interest to my colleagues: physicists, chemists, and biologists,” the MIPT alumnus notes. “This award is particularly special to me, because I am sharing it with my PhD adviser Steve Harris. This man — a great scientist, with no exaggeration — played a huge role in my scientific track. Joining his group at Stanford for me was a serendipitous life-altering event, with an overall impact comparable only to getting admitted to MIPT.”
Sokolov graduated from MIPT with honors in 1994. He recalls: “I arrived from Ukraine to take the entrance exams, after studying for months and trying to solve — together with my school teacher — physics and math problems from a booklet that I got while visiting MIPT the previous winter. I barely passed; my fate was decided at the committee meeting (the interview). There, when asked whether I was good with my hands, I said that I’d been certified as a lathe operator. The years at the Institute have shaped me both as a scientist and as a person. Phystechs [members of the MIPT community] are a unique biological species.”
He studied at the Department of Problems of Physics and Energy (now the Landau School of Physics and Research), in the Laser Physics group based at Prokhorov General Physics Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, created and at that time headed by Nobel laureate, academician Alexander Prokhorov.
Sokolov recalls this “awesome school and great teachers” with deep appreciation. He still sees some of his professors, such as Mikhail Fedorov and Vladimir Krainov, at conferences. With gratitude, he recalls the head of the Laser Biophysics Laboratory, Valery Savransky, as well as his diploma adviser Anatoly Spikhalsky.
After graduating from MIPT, Sokolov entered graduate school at Stanford. He then became a professor at Texas A&M University. The scientist plans to continue his work both on the fundamental physics of ultrafast molecular processes and on the practical applications to chemistry, biology, and medicine. One of his projects will be devoted to the use of plasmonic nanostructures for molecular spectroscopic nanoimaging.
“I wish for the new generation of phystechs to love science and have the best of luck. One way or another, maybe in an unexpected way, this will lead to where their talent can be revealed, so that they can live life to the fullest,” adds the researcher.
The award is named after Willis E. Lamb, a Nobel laureate in physics. Its sponsors are the organizers of the Physics of Quantum Electronics conference. Among the previous recipients are academy members and Nobel laureates Roy Glauber, Rainer Weiss, and Gérard Mourou.
The 50th Winter Colloquium on the Physics of Quantum Electronics was held Jan. 5-10, 2020, in Utah, U.S.
Photo. Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology alumnus Alexei Sokolov, who received this year’s Willis E. Lamb Award for Laser Science and Quantum Optics. Image courtesy of Alexei Sokolov