Medal a ‘heartwarming’ win for physics professor

Niels Kjaergaard
Niels Kjaergaard
Experimental studies of atomic collisions and light-scattering using ultra-cold gases, has won Niels Kjaergaard the prestigious Royal Society Te Apārangi Hector Medal for 2023.

The Danish physics professor and University of Otago Dodd-Walls Centre principal investigator said coming from a different cultural background, it was "heartwarming for my inner Viking" to receive the New Zealand recognition for what his team had pulled off in the laboratory.

"This would not have been possible without people, people, people, joining in from all corners of the world and the Land of the Long White Cloud to lend substance to Rutherford’s strong belief that ‘science should be international in its outlook and should have no regard to political opinion, creed, or race’."

The Hector Medal is awarded annually to a researcher for outstanding contributions to the advancement of chemical, physical, mathematical or information sciences.

Since coming to Otago in 2010, Prof Kjaergaard has led the construction of an ultra-cold atom machine which uses powerful laser beams to create clouds of potassium and rubidium atoms at temperatures of less than a millionth of a degree above absolute zero.

His research group have used this machine to study the scattering of light from atoms in these quantum gases, and the interactions between their atoms as they collide.

The research had enabled better understanding of the collective properties and behaviour of atoms in extreme states, in which their motion is dominated by quantum mechanics.

He said the Hector Award recognised more than a decade of work carried out by a team of skilful individuals, greater than the sum of its parts.

"I am immensely honoured to have been at the helm on this tribe’s journey into the quantum world of atoms, and so proud of what loyal and collegial members of my group have achieved during the course of this and beyond."