Antonio Vigil, who is earning a degree in physics, has been named the College of Arts and Sciences’ outstanding graduate for fall 2021
As a kid in New Mexico, Antonio Vigil dreamed of being a famous artist, like Pablo Picasso. Through the years, Greek and Russian literature, music theory, even making guitars by hand also captivated him.
While he has a deep understanding of the arts and humanities, he will graduate on Dec. 16 with a BA in physics, summa cum laude, from the University of Colorado Boulder. He has also been named the College of Arts and Sciences’ outstanding Graduate for fall 2021.
Vigil’s honors thesis is based on research he conducted in the lab of Eric Cornell, a physics professor and JILA fellow who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001 for synthesizing the world’s first Bose-Einstein condensate.
Cornell noted that Vigil took the lead on designing and testing a new cryogenic insulation system for JILA’s electron electric dipole moment experiment. This project requires that a large apparatus be maintained at a temperature of 180 Kelvin (-135 F) for many days at a time.
Vigil conducted extensive numerical modeling of the cooling system, initially using commercial modeling software. Later, Vigil created his own thermal model, nearly as accurate as the commercial model but easier to use and understand, Cornell said.
Then, with the help of fellow researchers in the lab, Vigil designed and built a thermometry system capable of automatically measuring and logging the temperature and many different locations within the apparatus. “Finally, he put the measurements and the models together, empirically validating his whole approach to achieving the necessary low temperature,” Cornell stated, adding:
“Antonio is among the top two undergraduates I’ve ever mentored (the other is currently a physics professor here at CU Boulder)!”
Vigil said he was surprised to learn he’d been named this semester’s outstanding graduate.
“I’m really humbled,” he said, crediting his selection to the luck of working with “such an awesome group” of scientists and the “love and mentorship they’ve given me.”
“I've always been the kid that wants to work with his hands, and so all the way from a young age, I was really interested in woodworking,” Vigil recalled recently. That longstanding interest “really clicked” when he took a gap year and did an internship in which he built guitars “from scratch.”
James W.C. White, the college’s interim dean, recently met with Vigil to offer congratulations and discuss Vigil’s work and career plans. Noting that Vigil had taken several courses in music, theory, musical composition, Greek and Roman literature and Tolstoy, White said Vigil is one of those people “who can connect with the artistic side of their brain along with the rational side of their brain.”
Vigil, who comes from a family of readers and writers, said he loves the classics, but he didn’t dive deeply into them until the pandemic.
“During COVID, I had the free time, because nobody was going out and doing anything, and I picked up a fascinating distillation of a lot of enlightenment philosophy and then the emerging existential philosophy. It's just fascinating. It's so coherent, too,” Vigil said, noting a special fondness for Tolstoy.
And with equal ease and enthusiasm, Vigil discusses Tolstoy and particle physics.
Describing the work in the Cornell lab, Vigil notes that the standard model of particle physics would suggest that matter and antimatter should exist in equal amounts, ultimately annihilating both and leaving behind energy.
“So we shouldn't exist, but we do,” he said.
To help understand why, physicists are striving to measure how round an electron is. But that measurement is quite precise, he noted: If an electron were the size of the sun, the asymmetry they hope to measure would be about the size of a coronavirus.
“It's a very precise experiment, and there's all sorts of things that can kind of mess up our sensitivity to the signal.”
Antonio is among the top two undergraduates I’ve ever mentored."
To make such a measurement easier, researchers cool charged atoms or molecules to extremely low temperatures. To keep the material cool, Vigil investigated the feasibility of using ordinary spray-foam insulation “that you find in your attic.” His thesis characterized the foam as a viable material for the lab’s experiment.
Vigil says what brought him to CU Boulder was the outdoors. Aside from creative pursuits, the outdoors is the other big love of his life, he said.
“I kind of knew I wanted to go into physics and focus on physics, but maybe not as intensely as I ended up doing.”
What’s next for him? “That’s the big question. I have no idea,” he said, adding: “I have to be working with my hands. It's got to be something that's not just me sitting behind a desk. If I'm staring at a screen, I'll be miserable.”
He did say he could see himself working in the realm of sustainable energy, which might connect his need for work that has a purpose with his desire to work with his hands.
In the end, he said, both physics and classic literature probe “the most fundamental principles on some level. It's all connected.”