New laser cooling and atom trapping lab comes to York

York Professor Emeritus Allan Carswell, his wife Helen Carswell, and the company he founded, Optech Incorporated, have made a gift that will allow undergraduate students in physics to benefit from the most up-to-date laser optics equipment. A donation of $125,000 to the York University Foundation plus matching funds from the University has created The Optech Incorporated Advanced Optics Laboratory within York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering.

Optech staff, members of the Carswell family, and staff, students and professors from the Faculty gathered on May 3 in the Petrie Science & Engineering Bldg. to celebrate this gift and the unique advantages it offers the University and its students.

Right: From left to right, Diane Carswell; Don Carswell; Helen Carswell; Allan Carswell; Elizabeth Carswell; and Ruth Carswell

Robert Prince, director of York’s Engineering Program, in the Faculty of Science & Engineering, hosted the event and thanked Optech for its forward-thinking donation. “This gift is one of the many success stories of the Faculty,” said Prince. “Because of generous donors such as Optech and the Carswell family, numerous new developments in science and engineering are made possible.”

York will now be able to train undergraduates in laser cooling and trapping of neutral atoms, which has emerged as one of the most exciting areas of atomic physics in the past 10 years. University facilities specializing in engineering physics are unique to Canada and graduates with expertise in this area are in high demand.

As the first and only undergraduate facility of its kind in Canada, the lab will include various pieces of reflective equipment necessary to split lasers and manipulate their direction to super-cool atoms. “York University has always been at the forefront of space and scientific research in North America, with Professor Emeritus Allan Carswell leading the charge into this vast frontier of discovery and knowledge,” said Lorna R. Marsden, York’s president and vice-chancellor. “This very generous gift from the Carswell family and Optech Incorporated will create one of the most advanced optics laboratories and learning environments anywhere in Canada that will benefit our engineering physics students enormously.”

“This gift is in recognition of the very close collaboration between York and Optech,” said Carswell. “We have come a long way since the late 1960s when this type of technology simply did not exist. To have undergraduates do this type of work now is truly mind-boggling.”

Carswell began his laser and optics research at York in the late 1960s using equipment that could be considered primitive by today’s standards. He joked about waiting so long back then for the lasers to “cool” and “fire” that the laser would frost up. “By the time the laser would fire,” he joked, “it was a great ball of ice.”

While at York, Carswell’s research focused on the investigation and application of light detection and ranging radar (LIDAR), which is similar to the more familiar radar, and can be thought of as a laser radar, with initial emphasis on atmospheric measurements. In 1974 he launched his own technology-based company, Optech Incorporated, which developed engineering applications using LIDAR technology. Now, over 30 years later, Optech has become the global market leader in the development, manufacture and support of advanced, laser-based survey systems.

Left: From left, York Professor Emeritus Allan Carswell and Doug Houston of Optech Incorporated test some of the equipment

Some modern applications of this technology include the use of LIDAR for airborne topographic mapping. For example, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency used LIDAR to assess the debris field of the World Trade Centre after 9/11. It has also been used to measure the depth of water and the aftermath of hurricanes and typhoons.

Among his many other honours, including his appointment as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a Fellow of the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute, Carswell has been named the lead Canadian researcher in the Phoenix mission to Mars in 2007 (the Phoenix team was selected for the 2007 Mars Scout Mission by NASA in 2003). On this mission, Carswell and the Canadian Phoenix team will measure the Martian atmosphere using LIDAR.

“We’re not just measuring the earth’s atmosphere anymore, we’re moving to Mars,” said Carswell. “It shows just how far things have evolved.”

Paul Marcus, president and CEO of the York University Foundation, thanked the Carswell family. “It’s challenging for the University to find the funding that we need to provide space and equipment for our talented students,” said Marcus. “Your gift is particularly meaningful as Dr. and Mrs. Carswell and Optech are members of the York family.”

For the past five years, York Professor A. Kumarakrishnan, who teaches physics in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, has been working with undergraduate students on laser cooling and atom trapping, achieving tremendous results with very limited lab facilities. As well, Kumarakrishnan’s group has the largest number of graduate students in the physics program and these students are assisting with setting up the new laboratory.

“There is no doubt that this lab will be popular with students at both the undergraduate and graduate level within applied physics and engineering,” said Kumarakrishnan, “People graduating from this lab will be very much in demand, mainly in the fields of photonics and applied optics as well as at national research labs.”

Scott Menary, York’s new Chair of the Department of Physics & Astronomy said, “This new lab is cutting edge. Our students are going to be able to do what Nobel Prize winners have done a mere 10 years ago. It’s a really stunning thing. I wish that such a lab existed when I was a student.”

This story was submitted to YFile by Carrie Brodi, communications officer, York University Foundation.