Deborah S. Jin, an American physicist who was one of the world’s foremost experts on how ordinary atoms and molecules change their behavior at extraordinarily low temperatures and who was known for creating what is sometimes called a new state of matter, died Sept. 15 at a hospice center in Boulder, Colo. She was 47.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where Dr. Jin was employed for nearly 20 years, announced the death and said the cause was cancer. She lived in Boulder and also worked at JILA, which was once called the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics and is a joint institute of the University of Colorado and NIST.
A 2003 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “genius” award, Dr. Jin was a masterfully deft and accomplished experimenter. Using lasers, magnets and vacuum chambers, she trapped and probed tiny bits of matter in realms only infinitesimal fractions of a degree above absolute zero, where all motion is understood to cease.
At almost negligible particle densities, and in cold far more frigid than the farthest reaches of space, the rules of physics that govern the everyday world give way to the probabilistic regime of quantum mechanics. There, particles show the characteristics of waves, and uncertainty often replaces the deterministic.
One corner of the quantum universe houses the world of ultra-cold quantum gases, and Dr. Jin received many honors and awards for her ground-breaking explorations in the field.
Such work is expected to aid in the development of more practical and effective superconductors, materials that can carry electric currents without resistance.
Scientists have also said it also holds promise in creating and improving electronic devices, in devising better sensors and measuring devices, and in quantum computing. It may also lead to advances in understanding the quantum behavior of systems of many particles.
Martin Zwierlein, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who leads a group studying ultracold gases at temperatures near absolute zero, said Dr. Jin and a colleague created an ultracold gas of polar molecules, which can interact as magnets do. In doing so, she opened another new field of research. Calling the ultracold polar molecules highly promising as candidates for use in a quantum computer, he said such devices would far outstrip the speeds of current computers.
Specific accomplishments with which Dr. Jin was credited included production in 2003 of what scientists describe as the first fermionic condensate. Dubbed a “superfluid” in recognition of its ability to flow without resistance, the material embodies fermions, atomic and nuclear particles distinguished by what is known as their half-integral spin. (The name can be traced to work carried out by physicist and Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi.)
The fermionic condensate is kin to Bose-Einstein condensates, which embody bosons, particles with integral spin. The Bose-Einstein condensate was first produced by NIST scientists, and NIST called it the world’s first quantum gas.
In deference to their uncommon properties, both condensates have been characterized in some scientific corners as new states of matter, to stand alongside the traditional solids, liquids and gases.
NIST physicist Eric Cornell, one of three scientists who shared the Nobel Prize for their work on the Bose-Einstein condensate, called Dr. Jin’s work in producing the fermionic condensate “technologically much more challenging.”
In addition, of the two condensates, the one credited to her is ultimately “more commercially relevant,” he said, noting that electrons, the basic particle of electronics, are fermions.
Zwierlein said Dr. Jin’s impact on ultracold atom and molecule research has been immense, added that her work “has opened up several new fields of research in atomic physics, with many experimental and theoretical groups following in her footsteps in the quest to understand quantum materials.”
Deborah Shiu-lan Jin was born in Stanford, Calif., on Nov. 15, 1968, and grew up in Indian Harbour Beach, Fla., where her father, a physicist, was teaching at a university nearby. Her mother had a master’s degree in physics and worked as an engineer, and Dr. Jin noted that while still young, she already felt inclined toward her parents’s field.
“It pretty much rubs off on you,” she said.
While she was a student at Princeton University, a summer job at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., “pretty much settled things,” Dr. Jin once said. “I think I knew from that point on that I was going to be a physicist.”
She graduated from Princeton in 1990 and obtained a PhD in physics at the University of Chicago in 1995, then went to JILA as a National Research Council research associate. She joined NIST in 1997 and was also on the physics faculty at the University of Colorado.
In addition to the “genius” award, her honors included the 2014 Isaac Newton Medal from Britain’s Institute of Physics and the Commerce Department Gold Medal. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Survivors include her husband of 22 years, John Bohn, and a daughter, Jaclyn Bohn, of Boulder; her mother, Shirley Jin, of Boulder; a sister; and a brother.
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