Sunday, July 08, 2018

Physics in the kitchen: Frying tofu

I was going to title this post "On the emergence of spatial and temporal coherence in frying tofu", or "Frying tofu:  Time crystal?", but decided that simplicity has virtues.

I was doing some cooking yesterday, and I was frying some firm tofu in a large, deep skillet in my kitchen.  I'd cut the stuff into roughly 2cm by 2cm by 1 cm blocks, separated by a few mm from each other but mostly covering the whole cooking surface, and was frying them in a little oil (enough to coat the bottom of the skillet) when I noticed something striking, thanks to the oil reflecting the overhead light.  The bubbles forming in the oil under/around the tofu were appearing and popping in what looked to my eye like very regular intervals, at around 5 Hz.  Moreover (and this was the striking bit), the bubbles across a large part of the whole skillet seemed to be reasonably well synchronized.  This went on long enough (a couple of minutes, until I needed to flip the food) that I really should have gone to grab my camera, but I missed my chance to immortalize this on youtube because (a) I was cooking, and (b) I was trying to figure out if this was some optical illusion.

From the physics perspective, here was a driven nonequilibrium system (heated from below by a gas flame and conduction through the pan) that spontaneously picked out a frequency for temporal oscillations, and apparently synchronized the phase across the pan well.  Clearly I should have filmed this and called it a classical time crystal.   Would've been a cheap and tasty paper.  (I kid, I kid.)

What I think happened is this.  The bubbles in this case were produced by the moisture inside the tofu boiling into steam (due to the local temperature and heat flux) and escaping from the bottom (hottest) surface of the tofu into the oil to make bubbles.  There has to be some rate of steam formation set by the latent heat of vaporization for water, the heat flux (and thus thermal conductivity of the pan, oil, and tofu), and the local temperature (again involving the thermal conductivity and specific heat of the tofu).  The surface tension of the oil, its density, and the steam pressure figure into the bubble growth and how big the bubbles get before they pop.  I'm sure someone far more obsessive than I am could do serious dimensional analysis about this.  The bubbles then couple to each other via the surrounding fluid, and synched up because of that coupling (maybe like this example with flames).   This kind of self-organization happens all the time - here is a nice talk about this stuff.  This kind of synchronization is an example of universal, emergent physics.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

A metal superconducting transistor (?!)

A paper was published yesterday in Nature Nanotechnology that is quite surprising, at least to me, and I thought I should point it out.

The authors make superconducting wires (e-beam evaporated Ti in the main text, Al in the supporting information) that appear to be reasonably "good metals" in the normal state.  [For the Ti case, for example, their electrical resistance is about 10 Ohms per square, very far from the "quantum of resistance" \(h/2e^{2}\approx 12.9~\mathrm{k}\Omega\).  This suggests that the metal is electrically pretty homogeneous (as opposed to being a bunch of loosely connected grains).  Similarly, the inferred resistivity of around 30 \(\mu\Omega\)-cm) is comparable to expectations for bulk Ti (which is actually a bit surprising to me).]

The really surprising thing is that the application of a large voltage between a back-gate (the underlying Si wafer, separated from the wire by 300 nm of SiO2) and the wire can suppress the superconductivity, dialing the critical current all the way down to zero.  This effect happens symmetrically with either polarity of bias voltage. 

This is potentially exciting because having some field-effect way to manipulate superconductivity could let you do very neat things with superconducting circuitry. 

The reason this is startling is that ordinarily field-effect modulation of metals has almost no effect.  In a typical metal, a dc electric field only penetrates a fraction of an atomic diameter into the material - the gas of mobile electrons in the metal has such a high density that it can shift itself by a fraction of a nanometer and self-consistently screen out that electric field. 

Here, the authors argue (in a model in the supplemental information that I need to read carefully) that the relevant physical scale for the gating of the superconductivity is, empirically, the London penetration depth, a much longer spatial scale (hundreds of nm in typical low temperature superconductors).    I need to think about whether this makes sense to me physically.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Book review: The Secret Life of Science

I recently received a copy of The Secret Life of Science:  How It Really Works and Why It Matters, by Jeremy Baumberg of Cambridge University.  The book is meant to provide a look at the "science ecosystem", and it seems to be unique, at least in my experience.  From the perspective of a practitioner but with a wider eye, Prof. Baumberg tries to explain much of the modern scientific enterprise - what is modern science (with an emphasis on "simplifiers" [often reductionists] vs. "constructors" [closer to engineers, building new syntheses] - this is rather similar to Narayanamurti's take described here), who are the different stakeholders, publication as currency, scientific conferences, science publicizing and reporting, how funding decisions happen, career paths and competition, etc. 

I haven't seen anyone else try to spell out, for a non-scientist audience, how the scientific enterprise fits together from its many parts, and that alone makes this book important - it would be great if someone could get some policy-makers to read it.  I agree with many of the book's main observations:

  • The actual scientific enterprise is complicated (as pointed out repeatedly with one particular busy figure that recurs throughout the text), with a bunch of stakeholders, some cooperating, some competing, and we've arrived at the present situation through a complex, emergent history of market forces, not some global optimization of how best to allocate resources or how to choose topics. 
  • Scientific publishing is pretty bizarre, functioning to disseminate knowledge as well as a way of keeping score; peer review is annoying in many ways but serves a valuable purpose; for-profit publications can distort people's behaviors because of the prestige associated with some.
  • Conferences are also pretty weird, serving purposes (networking, researcher presentation training) that are not really what used to be the point (putting out and debating new results).
  • Science journalism is difficult, with far more science than can be covered, squeezed resources for real journalism, incentives for PR that can oversimplify or amp up claims and controversy, etc.
The book ends with some observations and suggestions from the author's perspective on changes that might improve the system, with a realist recognition that big changes will be hard.   

It would be very interesting to get the perspective of someone in a very different scientific field (e.g., biochemistry) for their take on Prof. Baumberg's presentation.  My own research interests align much w/ his, so it's hard for me to judge whether his point of view on some matters matches up well with other fields.  (I do wonder about some of the numbers that appear.  Has the number of scientists in France really grown by a factor of three since 1980?  And by a factor of five in Spain over that time?)

If you know someone who is interested in a solid take on the state of play in (largely academic) science in the West today, this is a very good place to start.