Thursday, September 22, 2016

Deborah S. Jin Dies at 47; Physicist Studied Matter in Extreme Cold

Deborah S. Jin, who was mentioned as a potential candidate for a Nobel Prize.CreditAndy Cross/The Denver Post, via Getty Images
Deborah S. Jin, a much-honored physicist who created and explored matter that exists only at a sliver of a degree above absolute zero — or minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit — died on Sept. 15 in Boulder, Colo. She was 47.
The cause was cancer, said JILA, a joint institute of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where Dr. Jin worked for 20 years. (JILA was once an acronym for Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics; the organization dropped the longer name in 1995.)
In 2005, Dr. Jin became the second-youngest woman ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Her other honors included a 2003 MacArthur fellowship — the so-called genius award, with a no-strings-attached grant of $500,000 — and the 2013 L’Oreal/Unesco For Women in Science award for North America. She was mentioned as a potential candidate for a Nobel Prize.
Dr. Jin, a daughter of two physicists, had earned her doctorate in physics at the University of Chicago when she moved to Boulder in 1995 to join the laboratory of Eric A. Cornell, a JILA scientist, as a postdoctoral researcher.
Dr. Cornell and Carl E. Wieman, then a physics professor at the University of Colorado, had recently succeeded in cooling a gas of rubidium atoms to less than one-millionth of a degree above absolute zero, at which matter comes to an almost complete stop. The individual atoms melded together, acting as a single coherent particle.
It was a state of matter that had never been observed before, though it had been predicted in the 1920s by Albert Einstein and the Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose.
That feat earned Dr. Cornell and Dr. Wieman the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001. Dr. Jin performed many of the early experiments characterizing the gas, known as a Bose-Einstein condensate.
When Dr. Jin was hired to a permanent position in 1997, she took on an even harder experiment.
The rubidium atoms in Dr. Cornell and Dr. Wieman’s experiment acted like bosons — a fundamental class of particles named after Professor Bose — which cozy up to each other to form the condensate. Dr. Jin wanted to do a similar experiment with fermions, the other class of fundamental particles (named after the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi). Fermions, which are inherently antisocial, are loath to meld together like bosons, but they can pair up and, coupled together, act like bosons.
Dr. Jin succeeded in making what she called a fermionic condensate in 2004.
“A lot, lot harder,” Dr. Wieman said of Dr. Jin’s work, comparing it with his Nobel-winning experiment. “What did come out was more impressive than I thought would be possible.”
There is currently no practical application for fermionic condensates, but insights from Dr. Jin’s work could help scientists develop new materials, like room-temperature superconductors, which could convey electricity more efficiently than it is today.
Deborah Shiu-Lan Jin was born on Nov. 15, 1968, in Stanford, Calif. Her father was a physics professor at the Florida Institute of Technology; her mother was a physics-trained engineer. She grew up in Indian Harbour Beach, Fla., not far from Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics from Princeton in 1990 before earning her doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1995.
Last year, the news agency Thomson Reuters, which predicts possible winners of the Nobel Prizes, included Dr. Jin on its short list for the 2015 physics prize. (Nobel rules bar awarding the prize posthumously, unless the death followed announcement of the prize.)
Dr. Jin is survived by her husband, John Bohn, also a JILA scientist; their daughter, Jaclyn; her mother, Shirley Jin; a sister, Laural Jin O’Dowd; and a brother, Craig Jin.
After creating fermionic condensate, Dr. Jin began collaborating with Jun Ye of JILA to move beyond atoms and study ultracold molecules. That involved cooling two types of atoms and then finding a way to bring them close enough to bond, without the atoms heating up from the energy of the collision.
Lasers and magnetic fields carefully braked and steered the atoms, siphoning off energy as they bound together into molecules. That achievement has opened up a new field of research into chemical reactions: Scientists can now start to study quantum effects that are obscured at higher temperatures.
“You can start to describe the very fundamental nature of chemical reactions,” Dr. Ye said.
The experiments required of them both broad theoretical understanding of the physics they were seeking to reveal and precise knowledge of the experimental details. “She just had this incredible balance between detail and big scientific vision,” Dr. Ye said of Dr. Jin.

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