Monday, June 23, 2008

New comic

Thanks to Tom for having a link on his page to this. Too true! This is also brilliant. Good to have a laugh, despite the passing of George Carlin. One of my favorite Carlin quotes: [W]e have flamethrowers. And what this indicates to me, it means that at some point, some person said to himself, "Gee, I sure would like to set those people on fire over there. But I'm way too far away to get the job done. If only I had something that would throw flame on them."

No "Singularity" for you.

I wasn't going to even mention the idea of a Singularity, but then the IEEE made a point of dedicating an issue of their magazine to the concept. For those who don't know, the term "Singularity" originates with sci-fi author Vernor Vinge, who has written some compelling novels. Proponents of the concept believe that we live in an era of exponentially accelerating technological change, and that at some point (the Singularity) there will be a complete break in the nature of our species and societies, ushering in what some call a transhumanist future. The technologies typically associated with this idea are (1) Drexlerian molecular nanotechnology, so that we can eliminate scarcity by building anything we want anytime we want via (self-reproducing) nanomachines; (2) immortality via nanotechnological or biochemical control over biological processes that lead to senescence; and (3) strong AI, often including the concept of people uploading their minds to constructed hardware. The thing that continues to surprise me about this idea is that so many people seem to take it so seriously.

Hey, I'm all for optimism, and I'm generally bullish on the future of the species despite current scariness and some scientific arguments, but asserting that we will have a transhumanist utopia in twenty or thirty years is a wee bit of a reach, to put it mildly.

Friday, June 20, 2008

New physics building - suggestions? ideas? horror stories?

My university is in the design phase on a new physics building. This is exciting - first, it's a rare opportunity to design new lab space literally from the ground up. Second, new space will make possible some targeted expansion in the experimental directions in our department as well as in the experimental physicsy part of our electrical and computer engineering department.

Anyone out there have suggestions on building design, particularly with regards to laboratory facilities, utilities, HVAC, electrical service, vibrations, etc.? We're already looking at several recently constructed buildings elsewhere to learn lessons about best practices. If you have thoughts on physics buildings that you think are particularly well done (e.g., the electrical wiring system for the labs at the new nano building at Purdue looks extremely clever and well done), or, conversely, specific examples of design ideas that are lousy in practice or implementation, please post in the comments or email me.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Great scientific workshop

Posting from the scenic Newark International Airport.... I just finished attending the 2008 international workshop, ESPMI-08 - Electronic Structure and Processes at Molecular-based Interfaces, at Princeton University, hosted by Antoine Kahn and David Cahen. For me, this was practically the perfect scientific meeting - about 80 attendees, a mix of theorists and experimentalists, and all the talks were very good and pitched at the right level. I'll write more about this later, but for now, two highlights that show that some things are truly universal.

First, we were having a group discussion about organic photovoltaics and the relevant issues, and it was refreshing to see that everyone, even people who have been thinking about these problems for twenty years, starts out thinking about semiconductor interfaces by drawing the un-coupled materials and then thinking about what happens when they are brought into contact. I know I think this way, but it's reassuring to see that no one can just draw complicated band alignment diagrams freehand.

Second, during this morning's session there was a 1-second brownout/power glitch - the air conditioning shut down and restarted; the computer at the front of the lecture hall rebooted. The part that struck me as amusing was how the Princeton faculty immediately motioned to their grad students/postdocs to run off, or ran off themselves, to check on the lab equipment (particularly the UHV systems). I can totally see myself doing that.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Simple numbers

So, if crude oil futures cost at least $126/42 gallon barrel these days, doesn't that imply that the raw starting material for gasoline already costs (once you factor in the time delay between futures contracts and refining) $3/gallon? This suggests to me that the "correct" price for gasoline in the US should be closer to $5-6/gallon, when the refining catches up with futures. (That doesn't even touch on issues about how much of the crude oil pricing is due to speculation vs. actual supply & demand, or how much of this is due to the effective weak dollar policies of the US central bank.)

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Plagiarism at the professional level

Remember my discussion of plagiarism? Remember how a couple of readers didn't seem to thing that this was necessarily that big a deal, particularly if it was "just" background stuff and not actual data? Well, I'd be curious to know what they think of this case. I hope that someone follows through and notifies the editors at the respective journals. Makes you curious about their other publications, doesn't it?

This week in the arxiv: superconductivity update

Summer writing and travel are eating my blogging time a bit, and I've also agreed to write the occasional nano-related blurb for the ACS. While my posting rate has taken a hit, science has continued to march forward, with a lot of exciting new preprints concerning (relatively) high temperature superconductivity. Here's a sampling....

arxiv:0805.4463 - Matsumoto et al., Superconductivity in undoped T' cuprates with Tc over 30 K
This paper is a perfect example of why materials growers are (unfortunately often unsung) heroes in this field. The authors have come up with a new method for growing cuprate compounds of the form T'Re2CuO4, where T'Re is a rare earth from the series (Pr, Nd, Sm, Eu, Gd). Historically these compounds were found to be antiferromagnetic insulators - no superconductivity. In this new work the authors argue that these old results were due to interstitial oxygen leading to pair-breaking. Instead, with the new growth + annealing technique, these compounds are found to exhibit superconductivity with transition temperatures as high as 30 K. These subtleties are why one should always be very careful when looking at suggested compositions in new compounds....

arxiv:0805.4630 - Rotter et al., Superconductivity at 38 K in the iron arsenide (Ba1-xKx)Fe2As2
This is the first paper I've seen (though I may have missed one) that reports superconductivity in a compound related to the new iron arsenide systems but with two iron arsenide layers per unit cell rather than one. Back in the heyday of the cuprates, the same sort of thing happened - people went from compounds with single copper oxide planes to those with multiple planes per unit cell, and transition temperatures went up. Once again we see how rich the materials landscape can be. Update: as anon. in the comments pointed out, this isn't actually the 2-layer version of the compound. Rather, it's analogous to the so-called "infinite layer" version. My mistake.

arxiv:0806.0063 - Wang et al., Very high critical field and superior Jc-field performance in NdO0.82F0.18FeAs with Tc of 51 K
Other exciting features of the new iron arsenide superconductors are their extremely high critical fields and critical currents. If the transition temperatures could be raised a bit (say past 77 K) and the compounds could be made in wire form (certainly not easy in the cuprates; unlikely to be simple in these either since like the cuprates they are brittle), this could be a huge deal for high field magnets and other applications of superconductivity.

arxiv:0805.4616 - Chen et al., The BCS-like gap in superconductor SmFeAsO0.85F0.15
arxiv:0806.0249 - Matano et al., Spin-singlet superconductivity with multiple gaps in PrO0.89F0.11FeAs
These two papers examine two related compounds with different techniques, trying to figure out how the charge carriers in these iron arsenides pair up to form the Cooper pairs that make up the superconducting condensate state. In the former, measurements of Andreev reflection (a process where an electron in a normal metal approaches a superconductor, two electrons actually cross into the superconductor, and a hole is "retroreflected" back into the normal metal, leading to a pronounced feature in the conductance of the metal/superconductor interface) strongly suggest that the samarium compound acts like an ordinary BCS superconductor. That is, each Cooper pair has zero angular momentum (s-wave pairing); this implies that the superconducting gap is uniform in momentum space, with no nodes. In contrast, the cuprates exhibit d-wave pairing, with a superconducting gap that has a four-lobe structure in momentum space and that goes to zero along four particular crystallographic directions.

The second paper uses NMR measurements of the Pr compound to argue instead that there are multiple gaps, and further that the pairing symmetry is p-wave (which has been seen in superfluid 3He and in strontium ruthenate). At first glance, these two results seem to disagree, though (a) they are talking about different materials, and (b) the Andreev measurements are particularly sensitive to the surface, while the NMR measurements are nontrivial to interpret, at least for nonexperts. Well, this is the fun part - stay tuned, and we'll see how this shakes out.