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.)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Nanotechnology and industry - winning and losing

Thanks to Paul Weiss for pointing me to this article, which asks rather breathlessly (in response to this [pdf] report from the US Government Accountability Office) whether the US is somehow fumbling or screwing up the industrial deployment of nanotechnology.  The US government has sunk quite a bit of money over the last decade and a half into basic (and some applied) research on nanoscale science, clearly with the idea that this will energize the US economy in the long run by producing nanotechnology-based products in industry.  There is clearly some concern about whether the science is really making the transition to manufacturing, or is it stuck in the "valley of death". 

In my view, getting from largely university-based basic research to large scale industrial deployment of a technology is inherently difficult - at least as challenging and probably more so than what used to take place when companies broadly supported comparatively long-term industrial research.  To put it another way, it was always difficult to get something out of the lab and into a product at Bell Labs and IBM in the heyday of industrial research, and that involved technology transfer within a single company.  These days, companies are effectively trying to outsource much basic research to universities - super-short time horizons have combined with market forces to kill most US industrial long-term (that is, more than 3 years from a clear product) research (at least on the physical sciences side).  Companies have to get past the "not invented here" barrier, the fact that universities do not function like industrial labs, the fact that universities do not have the detailed knowledge or specialized equipment of scaled-up manufacturing, potential intellectual property challenges, general risk-averse behavior, etc.

My point is, getting from basic research to industrial deployment is a long, difficult path under the best of circumstances.   With our current system where companies are generally risk averse and they (and depressingly investors) are concerned with next quarter's stock price rather than where they will be in a decade, the situation is extremely challenging.  Be patient, don't panic, but don't be surprised if companies (likely foreign ones) with in-house research and a longer view are able to do well in the nano regime.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Science and public outreach - Nerd Nite

Last Thursday I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at the first Nerd Nite HoustonNerd Nite was described to me as "like TED, only with alcohol," which seems to have been pretty accurate.  The event was largely organized by Amado Guloy, a solid state chemist by training who now does IP law, and the first speaker was Andy Boyd, who has been doing serious science outreach as a contributor to the syndicated-on-public-radio Engines of Our Ingenuity.  I spoke last of the three, which had the benefit of letting the audience get, umm, relaxed by the time I took the stage.  In some sense I gave a meta-talk - I was a scientist speaking to a general audience about scientists speaking to general audiences.  The quote in my title - "It's late; we're all tired; why should any of us care about anything you're saying?" - is something that I once heard a certain famously irascible condensed matter theorist say to a startled speaker who had committed the sin of not really giving an introduction to a talk.   Hopefully the video of the talks will be online soon, and when that happens I'll update this post to link there.  The talk went very well, and I had a great time.  The audience was terrific, particularly in the question period, when they asked about a variety of challenging topics (e.g., is the upcoming Bill Nye vs. creation museum guy debate a good thing?  How much can we expect average people to know and understand about science?  Isn't asking average people to trust us on science - taking science as a matter of faith - antithetical to the whole point of science as a skeptical way of interacting with the world?).  The whole experience really made me think yet again about how nice it would be to have a Sagan-esque figure in terms of explaining the cool, fascinating parts of condensed matter (emergence; the crossover from quantum to classical behaviour; the nature of irreversibility; how modern technology has roots in cm physics; to name a few) to the general public.

Speaking of Sagan, I hope that the new version of Cosmos is must-see viewing.  UPDATE:  check out this blog post from the Library of Congress - you can get Sagan's lecture materials and homeworks for a course that he taught at Harvard, and some stuff from a course on critical thinking at Cornell.  Very cool. 

Lastly, if you want a fun example of a Nerd Nite talk, check out "Godzilla:  History, Biology, and Behavior of Hyperevolved Therapod Kaiju".