Ian Spielman: Cracking the Code of Superconductivity

From the Partnership for Public Service
Monday, July 27, 2009 7:28 AM

Ian Spielman of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a scientist helping to unravel some of physics' greatest unsolved mysteries.

Working at a laboratory in Gaithersburg, Md., Spielman examines the intricacies of high-temperature superconductivity, a process that could revolutionize power distribution, save significant amounts of energy and greatly reduce costs.

Figuring out how to make superconductivity work at room temperature could support the development of advanced superconducting magnets for medical equipment, such as MRIs, and create improved electrical storage devices, transformers, electric motors for vehicle propulsion, and magnetically-levitated trains.

"Superconductivity is the Holy Grail of Ian's field of research," director of the NIST physics lab Katharine Gebbie, said. "It's still many years away, but Ian is laying the foundation for understanding superconductivity."

Many of the technological advances of the 20th century sprang from mathematical models that require sophisticated computer simulations of solid materials. But many phenomena, such as superconductivity, are too complex to be simulated by even the world's most powerful computers.

Spielman, 33, has developed new physical models to test theories about how physical systems will behave under certain conditions. He manipulates atoms to mimic the behaviors of solid materials. Measuring these systems and how they behave explains the mathematical models and helps researchers to understand intractable problems, which can't be calculated.

His expertise in both condensed material physics and atomic physics sets him apart from his colleagues who generally focus on one discipline and his experiments have triggered international attention. Spielman's published work includes pieces in Physical Review Letters, the preeminent publication in the physics world, for example.

William Phillips, his boss and a 1997 Nobel Prize recipient for physics described Spielman as

"a poster boy for a new approach to physics where the boundaries of sub-disciplines are blurred."

"Very often, interdisciplinary work is where the big breakthroughs happen. Ian is a vanguard of this movement," Phillips said.

James Eisenstein, who was Spielman's doctoral advisor at California Institute of Technology and has taught some of the world's best science students, describes Spielman as "the most prepared to be a top-flight scientist."

"He is fearless in the lab and the most energetic young guy I've ever met," Eisenstein said.

Although Spielman once received a financially lucrative job offer from his alma mater, he chose to work at NIST.. His father worked for Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico and Spielman said that he, too, enjoys the virtues of working in a government lab.

"I love to do research that is both high-risk and high-value," Spielman said. "At NIST, I get to be a scientist all the time. I also like the idea of doing something that could impact U.S. industry and really have a long-term potential payoff for society."

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Visit www.ourpublicservice.org for more about the organization's work.

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