Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Rice Academy of Fellows, 2019

Just in case....

Rice has a competitive endowed postdoctoral program, the Rice Academy of Fellows.  There are five slots for the coming year (application deadline of January 3).  It's a very nice program, though like all such things it's challenging to get a slot.  If someone is interested in trying this to work with me, I'd be happy to talk - the best approach would be to email me.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Shoucheng Zhang, 1963-2018

Shocking and saddening news this week about the death of Shoucheng Zhang, Stanford condensed matter theorist who had made extremely high impact contributions to multiple topics in the field.    He began his research career looking at rather exotic physics; string theory was all the rage, and this was one of his first papers.  His first single-author paper, according to scopus, is this Phys Rev Letter looking at the possibility of an exotic (Higgs-related) form of superconductivity on a type of topological defect in spacetime.  Like many high energy theorists of the day, he made the transition to condensed matter physics, where his interests in topology and field theory were present throughout his research career.  Zhang made important contributions on the fractional quantum Hall effect (and here and here), the problem of high temperature superconductivity in the copper oxides (here), and most recently and famously, the quantum spin Hall effect (here for example).   He'd won a ton of major prizes, and was credibly in the running for a share of a future Nobel regarding topological materials and quantum spin Hall physics.

I had the good fortune to take one quarter of "introduction to many-body physics" (basically quantum field theory from the condensed matter perspective) from him at Stanford.  His clear lectures, his excellent penmanship at the whiteboard, and his ever-present white cricket sweater are standout memories even after 24 years.  He was always pleasant and enthusiastic when I'd see him.  In addition to his own scholarly output, Zhang had a huge, lasting impact on the community through mentorship of his students and postdocs.  His loss is deeply felt.  Depression is a terrible illness, and it can affect anyone - hopefully increased awareness and treatment will make tragic events like this less likely in the future.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Late Thanksgiving physics: Split peas and sandcastles

Last week, when I was doing some cooking for the US Thanksgiving holiday, I was making a really good vegetarian side dish (seriously, try it), and I saw something that I thought was pretty remarkable, and it turns out that a Nature paper had been written about it.

The recipe involves green split peas, and the first step is to rinse these little dried lozenge-shaped particles (maybe 4 mm in diameter, maybe 2 mm thick) in water to remove any excess dust or starch.  So, I put the dried peas in a wire mesh strainer, rinsed them with running water, and dumped them into a saucepan.  Unsurprisingly, the wet split peas remained stuck together in a hemispherical shape that exactly mimicked the contours of the strainer.  This is a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has ever built a sandcastle - wet particulates adhere together.  

The physics behind this adhesion is surface tension.  Because water molecules have an attractive interaction with each other, in the absence of any other interactions, liquid water will settle into a shape that minimizes the area of the water-vapor interface.  That's why water forms spherical blobs in microgravity.  It costs about 72 mJ/m2 to create some area of water-air interface.  It turns out that it is comparatively energetically favored to form a water-split pea interface, because of attractive interactions between the polar water molecules and the mostly cellulose split pea surface.  

For a sense of scale, creating water-air interface with the area of one split pea (surface area roughly 2.5e-5 m2) would take about 2 microjoules of energy.  The mass of the split pea half I'm considering, assuming a density similar to water, is around 25 mg = 2.5e-5 kg.  So, lifting such a split pea by about it's own height requires an energy of \(mgh \sim\) 2.5e-5*9.807*2e-4 = 0.5 microjoules.  The fact that this is comparable to (but smaller than) the surface energy of the water-air interface of a wet split pea tells you that you should not be surprised that water coatings can hold wet split peas up against the force of gravity.

What I then saw, which was surprising to me, was that even as I started adding the 3.5 cups of water mentioned in the recipe,  the hemispherical split pea "sandcastle" stayed together, even when I prodded it with a cooking spoon.  This surprised me.  A few minutes of internet search confirmed that this effect is surprising enough to merit its own Nature Materials paper, with its own News and Views article. The transition from cohering wet grains to a flowing slurry turns out to happen at really high water fractions.  Neat physics, and the richness of a system as simple as grains/beads, water, and air is impressive.