Making Materials Out of Light: Jonathan Simon

Photo courtesy of DOE Office of Science Public Affairs and Communications Jonathan Simon receives the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from DOE Secretary Moniz and DOE Office of Science Director Murray.

As a child, Jonathan Simon was a builder: From Erector® sets to small robots and helicopters, he loved to understand how the world works, and he hasn’t stopped, trading in his Lego® blocks for packets of light called photons. The experimental physicist and his colleagues at the University of Chicago are using photons like building blocks. They arrange small clusters of photons into tiny specks of matter whose properties mimic (and extend) those of real materials.

But while stacking blocks was just a fun way to spend time, stacking photons has let Simon tackle questions that sit at the intersection of physics and materials science. For example, he used a tiny stack of photons as a simple model of electrons, which — while they are at the periphery of atoms — are at the very heart of energy technologies.

Photons and atoms can be in two places at once; Simon wanted to know if there is a way to harness this uncertainty to make materials with novel properties. He studied the photons and eventually forced them to stack together and create a bit of matter only a few microns across.

“Unlike the photons from a flash light or laser beam, which are heavily overlapped with one another,” Simon explains, “we are working to create repulsion between our photons that allows them to arrange themselves into a crystal, overcoming their preference to overlap.”

His work on making crystalline materials from light follows closely on the heels of previous successes studying material formation and magnetization of laser-cooled atoms in lattices of light. He hopes these findings provide insights to room-temperature superconductivity for long-distance power transmission without energy loss to heat along the way.

His work has earned him the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). This award is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to researchers early in their careers. He was nominated by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences at DOE‘s Office of Science.

Simon earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology. He earned a Ph.D. in the same field and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. He joined the University of Chicago’s faculty in 2012. Since then, he’s earned a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Young Faculty Award, Air Force Young Investigator Research Program Award and a DOE Office of Science Early Career Research Award.

Simon received the PECASE award at a DOE ceremony on May 4.

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Kristin Manke is a Communications Specialist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on detail to the U.S. Department of Energy‘s Office of Science,