Physics Professor Discovers New Method of Measurement

  • BY Cal State East Bay
  • June 22, 2016

Cal State East Bay physics professor Derek Jackson Kimball considers his most recent scientific findings the “greatest discovery of his life.”

Jackson Kimball and his fellow researchers Alexander O. Sushkov, a professor at Boston University and Dmitry Budker, a professor at UC Berkeley, have discovered a tiny magnetic needle that could be used to create a magnetic sensor that would be 1,000x more sensitive than top magnetometers today. The discovery, while not yet created in physical form, could allow scientists to measure things not previously measurable.

“By using this new behavior, it’s a much more accurate measurement which allows you to measure things more precisely than we ever thought possible,” he said.

Jackson Kimball first had the idea that a needle would wobble the same way an atom wobbles during nuclear magnetic resonance measurements when he was in graduate school. The budding scientist and his advisor, Budker, realized that minute needles behaved differently than those he remembered from his boyhood using compasses during Boy Scouts activities. 

Now, years later, Jackson Kimball is studying needles in a lab instead of deep in the woods, but they’re still just as exciting.

“This is one of the greatest ideas we’ve ever had,” Jackson Kimball said. “We’ve made this exciting prediction that could open up an entire vista of magnetic developments.”

Recently, Jackson Kimball’s work surrounding the needle was published by the prestigious physics journal, “Physical Review Letters,” a high honor for anyone in the physics field.

“The physics community recognized that it was a big deal,” Jackson Kimball said. “We’ve found out something and that’s really cool.”

Jackson Kimball, Sushkov and Budker spent a year researching the needle, but it wasn’t always fun or easy.

“For a year we’ve been calling on the phone arguing back and forth about whether this was right, it was an emotional roller coaster,” Jackson Kimball said.

Next up? Trying to bring the idea to life.

Jackson Kimball already has a jar of magnetic needles, but now he needs a way to put one of them in a chamber that’s as close to zero gravity as possible so it will be suspended and spin. He’s hoping the recent publicity of the paper will help him find people who may have some ideas because for now, his team is stumped on how to take the discovery from paper to reality.

“With these things you think them through as far as you can then you try to go and build it,” he said.

And that someone could very well be a student or fellow professor. Jackson Kimball said he’s done a lot of experiments since coming to teach at CSUEB and finds it one of the most rewarding parts of the job.

“I get the excitement of being a scientist and trying to discover new things while also getting students involved,” he said.

Plus, he said, it's good for the students when professors like himself are active in their fields and share that work with them.

“The students see [that] the work going on is cutting-edge stuff … and we can get the world interested in what’s going on at CSUEB,” he said. “They see that it’s not a dead field where we are reading about or doing things other people have already done.”

To learn more about Jackson Kimball’s discovery, read the full text at “Physical Review Letters" website.