Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
As a master of fields like quantum information theory and quantum optics, professor Carlton Caves knows that it’s tough to explain what he does for a living.
“It’s very hard to explain what we’re up to,” said the distinguished professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of New Mexico. “We know what to do, but in some sense even we can’t understand it.”
But his work in that complex field of matter and energy at an atomic and subatomic level generated plenty of attention over his career, and last week he was elected into the National Academy of Sciences, an elite group of a scholars committed to science and technology in America. He was one of 120 new members elected into the academy this year and is the fifth UNM faculty member to earn the honor, said Steve Carr, a UNM spokesman.
To salute the accomplishment, Caves and his wife, Karen Kahn, a partner at the Modrall Sperling Law Firm, had a champagne toast over Skype with their children – a son who is a climate scientist now in Germany and daughter who is a biologist in England.
Caves said the part of his work that likely caught the attention of the academy is his long-held theory that has changed the way the scientists can observe coalescing black holes.
Back in 1981, Caves had completed his Ph.D. and was doing a research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology, and he suggested using “squeezed light” to essentially improve an interferometer’s detection capability.
Fast-forward through nearly 40 years of scientific research, and Caves’ squeezed-light idea has in recent years been used to study colliding black holes and neutron stars at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. That’s a large-scale physics experiment in cosmic gravitational waves using massive instruments in Washington state and Louisiana.
And Caves pointed out the LIGO experiment has cost about $1 billion.
“If you have an idea that makes a billion-dollar project work better, it gets a lot of attention,” he said.
Caves has worked at UNM since 1992 after launching his career at Caltech and then the University of Southern California.
He recently retired as director of the Center for Quantum Information and Control and said he plans to spend the rest of his career writing papers and assisting young researchers doing postdoctoral work.
“That’s what I like doing, and that’s what I do well,” he said.
UNM Provost James Holloway said Caves has made extraordinary contributions in his field.
“His election to the National Academy of Sciences is a career-capping honor in a long list of honors and awards he has received for his work,” Holloway said. “For a U.S. scientist, this election is considered perhaps the most prominent national honor. Professor Caves is still actively working and publishing, and contributing to the frontiers of human knowledge.”