Well, he’s a world-renowned physicist specializing in quantum optics at California Institute of Technology, so there’s a good chance you’ll never really understand what he does.
Still: Start by picturing him as one of the planet’s tallest explorers, like the Napoleonic Wars-era Royal Navy officer Horatio Hornblower of C.S. Forester’s beloved novels. Kimble devoured those while growing up far from the high seas in Floydada, Texas.
Picture him, as he suggests, a 6-foot-7-inch former college basketball player dropped in the middle of a forest without food, a compass or any notion of how to get out.
Picture what it’s like to live for answering the question, “What’s possible?”
“It’s a great adventure,” he says. “My responsibility is at some level to fail. It’s to find out what’s really possible at the cusp of human technical and intellectual ability. I want to know something nobody else knows. To do that, you have to be willing to be lost a lot.”
Kimble’s journey toward a life of being lost began with what he found by staying in West Texas after high school to attend Abilene Christian University. He arrived on a basketball scholarship and, two years later, still planned to transfer to a university with an engineering program. That was in 1969.
“And then Charles Ivey came, and that changed my world,” Kimble says. “I wouldn’t be a physicist without him.”
In interviews and at a celebration lunch honoring Kimble as ACU’s 2016 Outstanding Alumnus of the Year, he and former professor and chair of physics Dr. Charles Ivey (’65) each insisted it is the other who is the greater talent in the world of physics. Ivey helped build what is now the Department of Engineering and Physics from the ground up; once he arrived, transferring for Kimble was no longer on the radar.
“What Charles did for physics has changed ACU,” Kimble says, describing his mentor as bringing a rigor and a challenge to the science.
Even with only two years of major-specific coursework, Kimble was accepted to the University of Rochester for graduate school and earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in physics. Of course, as Ivey says, it helped that Kimble was a natural.
“I had hit the jackpot,” Ivey says. “Imagine being a new professor and having Jeff Kimble as a student. Everyone should be so lucky. In the best of traditions, he turned out to exceed all of us and to be an internationally recognized contributor to the highest level of physics and to have surpassed the grandest dreams hoped for him. And he did it with an exemplary personal character. I was the lucky guy who just happened to be here when his far greater talent came along.”
Kimble taught physics at The University of Texas at Austin from 1979-89, leaving Texas for California and Caltech, where he is the William L. Valentine Professor of Physics and founding director of the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter. He lives in La Canada Flintridge, Calif., with his wife, Margaret, and has two grown daughters, Dr. Katherine Grooms and Megan Kimble.
A considerable portion of his research is in the field of cavity quantum electrodynamics (QED). Breaking that down for non-physicists isn’t easy – “That’s the best way to end the conversation,” he says with a laugh – but it begins with studying the way light interacts with matter.
Fundamentally, matter is made up of atoms and light is made up of photons. Using advances in laser science, Kimble investigates how atoms and photons interact to help determine what about that interaction can be controlled by humans.
Among many scientific advances for which Kimble and his colleagues are responsible is the invention of the atom-cavity microscope, which traps and tracks one atom with single photons. Being able to control photons and transport them one by one would be a boon to the way we communicate and compute.
Consider fiber-optic communication: optical fibers – tiny threads of glass with a diameter slightly thicker than a human hair – are used to transmit information from point to point over the internet via pulses of light. A pulse of light contains about 1,000 photons, and a piece of fiber can only handle so many photons at a time. Instead of trying to send more photons, one goal is to find a way to send more information per photon. This could form a basis for a quantum internet, which would use quantum mechanics to send and receive quantum bits of light (i.e., single photons) as opposed to the current internet with data encoded into classical binary digits of bright pulses of light.
The quantum world isn’t just smaller; it’s more powerful. So, if photons can be controlled where only one is needed to send a message, Kimble says, a person could use 1,000 photons to send 1,000 pieces of information as opposed to a single piece.
“Moreover, the quantum world offers some possibilities for new sets of rules that could lead to new quantum technologies to benefit society,” he says.
His work has garnered him numerous prestigious accolades, such as the Einstein Prize for Laser Science (1989), the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society (2004) and the Herbert Walther Award from the German Physical Society and the Optical Society of America (2013). Kimble also is the Distinguished Scholar for 2014-16 at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching bei Munchen, Germany.
In 2014, Caltech held a symposium, “The Quantum Optics Frontier,” in Kimble’s honor (and to coincide with his 65th birthday). International participants traveled to Pasadena, Calif., to discuss advances in quantum optics which Kimble and his colleagues have pioneered, from the generation of squeezed light, to the realization of quantum measurement beyond the standard quantum limit, to the teleportation of a beam of light.
“I couldn’t have imagined while I was at ACU that one would actually be able to control, one by one, individual atoms and photons,” he says. “Nobody even thought to ask if you could do that. It was just such an obvious ‘No, you can’t.’ But I’m of the personality where if you say I can’t do it, I will try to do it.”
He also couldn’t have imagined being named Outstanding Alumnus of the Year by his alma mater, he says.
“There are a lot of really amazing people who have come through ACU and gone on to do great things,” Kimble says. “That I was selected, it’s really quite humbling. It’s a great honor. What I’ve done in science, to me it’s not my accomplishment as much as it’s the integrated total of the efforts of the amazing people with whom I have worked.”
Ivey begs to differ: “Jeff’s inspirational scholarship helped cement the entire physics department,” he says.
On campus at the Feb. 21 Alumni Day ceremony honoring him, Kimble toured the new Engineering and Physics Laboratories at Bennett Gymnasium and saw construction of the new Onstead Science Center and Halbert-Walling Research Center. The multi-million-dollar buildings for ACU’s science departments represent just how far the university has come since his undergraduate days.
“I don’t think there are too many places where you can have both a solid foundation in religion on one hand and on the other hand, rigorous training in science and mathematics,” he says. “There are a lot of schools where those just don’t go together. In our society, often those two sides won’t even sit at the table together. What ACU has done is inspiring.”
Back in his own lab, Kimble is busy creating, finding the limits to his knowledge and moving past them. His ignorance is exploding, he says, with every answer only raising more questions. He loves it.
“It’s a privileged position,” he says, “to be able to explore.”