## Monday, March 10, 2014

### Coolest paper of 2014 so far, by a wide margin.

Sorry for the brief post, but I could not pass this up.

Check this out:  http://arxiv.org/abs/1403.1211

I bow down before the awesomeness of an origami-based microscope.

### March Meeting wrap-up

I've been slow about writing a day 3/4/wrapup of the APS meeting because of general busy-ness.  I saw fewer general interest talks over that last day and a half in part because my own group's talks were clustered in that timeframe.  Still, I did see a couple of interesting bits.
• There was a great talk by Zhenchao Dong about this paper, where they are able to use the plasmonic properties of a scanning tunneling microscope tip to perform surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy on single molecules (in ultrahigh vacuum and cryogenic conditions) with sub-nm lateral resolution.  The data are gorgeous, though how the lateral resolution can possibly be that good is very mysterious.  Usually the lateral extent of the enhanced optical fields is something like the geometric mean of the tip radius of curvature and the tip-sample distance.  It's very hard to see how that ever gets to the sub-nm level, so something funky must be going on.
• I saw a talk by Yoshihiro Iwasa all about MoS2, including work on optics and ionic liquid gating.
• I went to a session on the presentation of physics to the public.  The talks that I managed to see were quite good, and Dennis Overbye's insights into the NY Times' science reporting were particularly interesting.  He pointed out that it's a very challenging marketplace when so much good (or at least interesting) science writing is given away for free (as in here or here or here).  He did give a shout-out to Peter Woit, particularly mentioning how good Peter's sources are.
I probably should wade into focus topic organizing again;  it seemed like this year there were more issues with parallel sessions about similar topics and some lack of cohesiveness within some of the contributed sessions.  (This isn't meant as a criticism of those who invested their time to do this, which is absolutely appreciated!  I am well aware how hard it is, particularly as the meeting keeps growing.)

## Wednesday, March 05, 2014

### The end of the National Nano Infrastructure Network? Federal support for shared facilities.

The National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network is, as their page says, "an integrated networked partnership of user facilities, supported by the National Science Foundation, serving the needs of nanoscale science, engineering and technology".  Basically, the NNIN has been a mechanism for establishing nodes of excellence at sites around the US, where people could travel to use equipment and capabilities (high resolution transmission electron microscopy; sophisticated wafer-scale electron beam lithography; deep etching) that they lack at their home institutions.  Crucially, these shared facilities are supported by skilled technical staff that can train users, work with users to develop processes, perform fee-for-service work on occasion, etc.  The most famous sites are the Stanford Nanofab Facility and the Cornell Nanofab.  Over the years, the NNIN has been instrumental in an enormous amount of research progress.  Note that this effort is distinct from Major User Facilities (such as synchrotrons, neutron sources, etc).

This year, there was a competition for a Next Generation NNIN - the call is here.  The idea was very much to broaden the network into characterization as well as fabrication, and to reach new, growing communities of users in areas like bio, the environment, earth sciences/geo.  After a proposal process that boiled down to two teams (one with 18 universities; one with 20), very extensive full proposals, reverse site visits, written responses to reverse site visits and reviews, etc., the NSF decided not to make an award.  It would appear that there will be another call of some kind issued in fall, 2014.  For now, what this means is that the NNIN is ending.  Cornell, Stanford, and the other sites face major cuts in funding for staff and support for external users.  (Full disclosure:  I was the Rice rep on one of the teams.)

This whole issue is very complex, but it raises a number of questions that would benefit from a discussion in the community.  What should be the pathway to federal support for shared facilities and staffing, particularly tools and techniques that would be prohibitively expensive for individual universities to support via internal funds?  Should there be federal support for this?  Should it come from NSF?  How can we have a stable, sustained level of research infrastructure, including staffing, that serves the broad scientific community, in an era when funding is squeezed ever more tightly?  If the burden is shifting more toward individual universities having to support shared infrastructure basically with internal funding and user fees, what impact will that have?  Comment is invited.

### March Meeting, Day 2

This is a meta-post - I'm writing it while sitting in the back of a session on presenting science to the public.  A brief list of some of the neat things I heard yesterday:
• I saw a very nice talk by Jelena Vuckovic about doing nonlinear and cavity optics, with (self-assembled InAs) quantum dots as the emitters, and the cavity being formed in 2d photonic band gap systems.  The latest work looks at nonlinear effects like photon blockade, and makes contact to some work involving "circuit" quantum electrodynamics (see here).
• I went to a talk by Ken Golden, who taught me sophomore differential equations, and he gave a fascinating presentation about applying rigorous math (percolation theory, treating microstructured composites like effective media) to the challenging problem of understanding melting polar sea ice.  As a side note, he showed a great picture that is an example of the "quasistatic limit" - long wavelength surface ocean waves don't "see" individual ice floes, but instead propagate in an effective medium.
• There was a great invited session about oxide heterostructures.  Mobilities are improving (under the right conditions) to the point where some ways of learning about the band structure through electronic transport are now becoming possible.  Very impressive was a talk by Shahal Ilani, where he presented a very compelling view of the importance of structural domains ("ferroelasticity") in the underlying strontium titanate - when those domains are under control, transport becomes much more clean, revealing the apparent existence of a magnetically interesting phase at high carrier density and high in-plane magnetic field.

## Tuesday, March 04, 2014

### March Meeting, Day 1

Observations from the first day of the APS March Meeting:
• There has been a lot of progress and excitement in looking at layered materials "beyond graphene".  It's interesting to see a resurgence of interest in transition metal (Ti, but more frequently W and Mo) dichalcogenides (S, Se, Te), a topic of great activity in bulk materials growth in the 1970s and early 80s.  There are clearly a lot of bright people working on ways to grow these materials layer-by-layer, with the long-term idea of making structures somewhat like semiconductor heterostructures (e.g., GaAs/AlGaAs), but with the richer palette provided by these materials (exhibiting charge density waves, strong spin-orbit effects, complex band structure, etc.).  Molecular beam epitaxy of these materials with high quality is generally very hard.  For example, Mo and W are extremely refractory, requiring electron beam evaporation at temperatures exceeding 2500 C, and sticking at the sample surface without much diffusion.  Whoever really gets layer-by-layer, large-area growth working with diverse materials is going to make a big impact.
• I saw Heinrich Jaeger give a great talk about granular materials by design.  These are entirely classical systems, but they are extremely challenging.  If you think about it, they are not crystalline (no long-range symmetries to exploit in modeling), they are non-ergodic (the constituent grains are kinetically limited, and can't explore all possible configurations), and nonlinear (the interactions between particles are short-ranged and very strong).  Very interesting.
• I caught two talks in the session looking at silicon-based quantum information processing.  It's possible to create and manipulate dangling bonds on the Si surface (localized states that can trap electrons) and look at how those bonds interact with each other.  Very neat.  Looking at particular individual impurities, with the right system (erbium in Si), you can couple a single impurity to a single-electron transistor charge sensor.  Then, you can manipulate that impurity with optical techniques and use the charge detection to determine its state.  Very impressive.
• The session on secrecy in science was very good.  The ability to manufacture viruses by design is genuinely frightening (though it loses some menace when the words "Pandemic - millions of deaths?" are projected in Comic Sans).  The discussion of intellectual property was great and the role of universities merits its own blog post.  Lastly, I was unaware of the WATCHMAN project, which is a very interesting neutrino physics experiment that as an added bonus should allow the international community to detect rogue nuclear reactors meant for weapons development.

## Friday, February 28, 2014

### Upcoming blogging: APS March Meeting + recurring physics themes

This coming week is the APS March Meeting in Denver.  I'll probably blog about some of the talks, but I may not give detailed recaps as I've done in some past years - it's hard to get a complete picture of a meeting that's grown so vast (and I have a ton of work I somehow need to get done over that week).  Topics that are clearly hot, based on the meeting program:  topological everything (insulators, superconductors, Majorana structures, etc.); layered everything (graphene, transition metal dichalcogenides, including optical properties); oxide heterostructure materials; quantum information; cold atoms to examine particular condensed matter problems incl systems out of equilibrium; unconventional superconductivity (incl quantum criticality, pnictides, cuprates, etc.); plasmonics.   I'll admit that I'm curious about the future of the New Media in the communication of science to the public

I've also been thinking about doing a series of posts really aimed at the public about recurring themes that crop up in physics.  This will require a bit of thought to make the writing really accessible to a general audience, but it could be fun.  This story by Adam Frank was very well done and inspirational in terms of what such a series could be.

## Wednesday, February 19, 2014

### Ballistic electrons in graphene nanoribbons at room T: whoa!

The de Heer group at Georgia Tech has a paper in this week's Nature where they present some results on graphene nanoribbons that are quite unexpected and exciting.  Rather than exfoliate graphene from graphite, or grow it via chemical vapor deposition, the Georgia Tech group creates graphene via the controlled transformation of silicon carbide.  In this latest work, they used a vicinal substrate (meaning that it is cut slightly off-axis from a high symmetry direction, so that the surface has regularly spaced atomic terraces).  When this substrate is annealed in a particular way, graphene forms across the surface.  Interestingly, on the plateaus, the resulting material appears to be semiconducting (based on tunneling measurements made by scanning tunneling microscopy (STM)), while the steps reconstruct and form sloping sidewalls that have 40 nm wide ribbons that are metallic graphene (as seen through tunneling and photoemission).

Using in situ multiple tungsten STM tips, they are able to measure the conductance of such ribbons as a function of length.  Remarkably, they find that the two-terminal conductance is approximately independent of length (!) over a broad range of lengths (from 0.5 $\mu$m to about 16 $\mu$m) even at room temperature, and it has the very suggestive value of $e^{2}/h$, which is what you would expect for a single quantum channel, with one species of the electronic spin.  This kind of violation of "Ohm's Law" is expected when the electrons travel essentially without scattering from one end of a device to the other.  Ordinarily we can't see this at room temperature in macroscopic conductors, because there are many ways electrons can scatter, including inelastic processes involving lattice vibrations.  The authors have a number of other measurements that are consistent with the implication that a single channel is somehow able to propagate ballistically over these long distances at room temperature.  Indeed, they can use additional tips as "passive" scattering centers; placing an additional tip on the wire makes the conductance drop, presumably because that tip is able to cause back-scattering.

These observations are very interesting, since they suggest that there is some kind of "protected" channel that allows conduction by basically making back-scattering (which would usually contribute to resistance) very disfavored.  The apparent spin polarization (inferred from the conductance value, not measured directly) is also intriguing.  I wonder if the "kink" at the edges of the ribbons where the sidewall transitions to the flat plateaus on either side of the ribbon acts as some sort of source of strong spin-orbit interactions (despite the low $Z$ of carbon) by distorting the graphene lattice.  In any case, it is nice to see a genuinely surprising graphene result.

## Friday, February 14, 2014

### What's the deal w/ NIF and fusion?

The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Lab just published a couple of papers (PRL and Nature) about their latest results in inertial confinement fusion.   The idea is to hit a deuterium-tritium fuel pellet with 192 converging high power laser beams and dump enough energy into the nuclei (by various means) that they can overcome their Coulomb repulsion and fuse, releasing a helium nucleus, a neutron, and energy.  Their latest results demonstrate net "fuel gain" - they are able to infer via complicated means how much energy actually got coupled to the D/T (about 10 kJ in a shot), and from the neutrons they can determine how much energy came out from the fusion reactions (about 15 kJ in a shot).  This sounds great, and it's an important physics milestone for the researchers.  However, something gets lost in the press releases:  They dump in about 1.8 MJ from the lasers to get 10 kJ into the fuel.  That's an input coupling efficiency of 0.05%.  Also, bear in mind that they have to rebuild the whole sample holder and everything before each shot.

While the latest results are a nice and critical physics step, it is extremely hard for me to believe that the NIF approach will ever lead to anything resembling a power plant.  For a sense of scale, the NIF annual budget is something close to $1B, while the US commitment to ITER is on the order of$200M/yr, the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab annual budget is around $100M, and the fusion program at Sandia is about$5M/yr.  (For reference, the F-35 fighter program costs about $12B/yr, and the NSF annual budget is around$7B/yr).   NIF is a fascinating physics testbed, a way to study certain processes without detonating nuclear weapons, and the warp core of the most recent iteration of the starship Enterprise.  However, press articles implying that this recent result is a breakthrough toward fusion power are misleading.

## Wednesday, February 12, 2014

### Are blogs really changing scientific discourse?

Lately there has been a fair bit of talk (here, for example, or here) about whether blogs, particularly those written by scientists, are actually changing the scientific discourse and the way science gets done (particularly in terms of debating controversies or resolving disagreements).   I was recently asked this by a science journalist, too.

My short answer is, "maybe, sometimes, but mostly 'no'."  (Thus, I am roughly consistent with the old adage that article titles posed in the form of a question are almost always answered by "no".)  The main reason that blogging is, in my view, not having some major transformative effect on science is that the vast majority of scientists do not blog, and a slightly smaller (but still vast) majority do not even read blogs let alone comment on them or ponder writing one.  Blogs are still far and away the exception rather than the rule in terms of how scientific discussions take place.

That being said, when the relevant participants participate in blog discussions (or the equivalent, as on mathoverflow), very cool things can take place.  However, I think the most productive version of this happens either when someone really tries to educate an interested audience (my attempted model here most of the time - a sort of science journalism by scientists), or when informed discussion happens between knowledgeable experts (sort of a virtual version of the kinds of conversations that can happen at good conferences).  I do think that unilateral discussions of controversies can serve a useful purpose.  However, one-sided presentations on the internet are not all peaches and cream, as you no doubt know.

(A mildly amusing note:  My previous post got a big spike in pageviews thanks to Physics Today tweeting the link.  Thanks, PT!  Hopefully some of those people will stick around.  Of course, my most-viewed post of all time, by about a factor of 3, is still my commentary about whiskey stones.  Clearly I should routinely stake out an aggressive position on some physics point connected to good Scotch.)