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A&S scholar awarded Sloan Research Fellowship

Experimental physicist, Amar Vutha on atomic clocks and dark energy

Experimental physicist, Amar Vutha is among is 126 researchers across North America awarded Sloan Research Fellowships for 2018.

Experimental physicist Amar Vutha is among 126 researchers from across North America awarded a 2018 Sloan Research Fellowship.

Vutha’s research focuses on precisely and accurately measuring the properties of our poorly understood universe. Specifically, he works to design devices for measuring the effects of gravity, dark matter and dark energy.

“Fundamental questions are driven by our urge to understand this strange and beautiful universe,” said Vutha.

Although dark matter and dark energy are supposed to make up 95 per cent of the universe, scientists have never been able to directly measure their effects. The two-year fellowship will support Vutha’s efforts to design new types of atomic clocks, which he hopes will do so.

Just as all clocks are based on stable oscillators with a regular output – whether they are grandfather clocks using pendulum oscillators, or sundial clocks that rely on the steady rotation of Earth – the steady oscillator in an atomic clock is a laser. It is regulated using atoms, which resonate in much the same way as a precise tuning fork. Atomic clocks are simply devices tuned to these atomic resonances, like fine musical instruments tuned using quantum mechanical tuning forks.

“The only things that can perturb the very stable resonances of atoms and molecules are the influences of new unknown physical phenomena, like dark matter and dark energy,” said Vutha. “And though these influences are likely to be feeble, the fantastic precision available using atoms and molecules, whose resonances can be measured to better than 19 decimal places, means it may be possible to measure even these very small effects.”

He notes that the most precise optical clocks that exist today are not ideal for field applications, due to their size and complexity. His research group is working to develop an optical atomic clock that is both precise enough to detect even gravitational waves, and compact and portable enough that it could be put on a satellite.

“There may be even more practical benefits as people think of things to do with them that we cannot even imagine today, just as lasers and GPS emerged out of fundamental research in atomic physics,” said Vutha. “This support from the Sloan Foundation is important because it feeds the engine of scientific curiosity, which drives all the technological enterprises of our society.”

The fellowships are awarded to 126 non-tenured scholars and scientists across North America annually by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Recipients are at an early stage of their careers with a strong body of independent research accomplishments. Along with Vutha, recipients at U of T this year include Robert Haslhofer and Giulio Tiozzo in the Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences at University of Toronto Scarborough, and Arul Shankar in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at University of Toronto Mississauga.