Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Charles Lieber

As one of the only surviving nano-related blogs, I feel somewhat obligated to write a post about this.  Charles Lieber, chair of the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard, was arrested yesterday by the FBI on charges of fraud.  Lieber is one of the premier nano researchers in the world.  The relevant documents are here (pdf) and they make for quite a read.

In brief, Lieber is alleged to have signed on to China's Thousand Talents program with an affiliation at Wuhan University of Technology back in 2011.  This involved the setting up of a joint research lab in Wuhan and regular interactions, including WUT students to come to Harvard.  That in itself is not necessarily problematic.  Much more concerning is the claim that WUT would pay $50K/month (plus living expenses) for his involvement, and the stipulation in the agreement that he would be working at least nine months/yr with them.  That alone would raise serious conflict-of-commitment and percentage-effort issues.  Worse is the allegation that this went on for years, none of this was disclosed appropriately, and in fact was denied to both DOD and (via Harvard internal folks) NIH. 

These allegations are shocking, and the story is hard to fathom for multiple reasons. 

Putting on my department chair hat, I can't help but think about how absolutely disruptive this will be for his students and postdocs, since he was placed on immediate leave.  It will be a nontrivial task for the department and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard to come up with a way to transition the students to other advising and pay circumstances, and even more challenging for the postdocs.  What a mess.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Stretchy bioelectronics and ptychographic imaging - two fun talks

One of the great things about a good university is the variety of excellent talks that you can see. 

Yesterday we had our annual Chapman Lecture on Nanotechnology, in honor of Rice alum Richard Chapman, who turned down a first-round draft selection to the Detroit Lions to pursue a physics PhD and a career in engineering.  This year's speaker was Zhenan Bao from Stanford, whom I know from back in my Bell Labs postdoc days.  She spoke about her group's remarkable work on artificial skin:  biocompatible, ultraflexible electronics including active matrices of touch sensors, transistors, etc.  Here are a few representative papers that give you some idea of the kind of work that goes into this: Engineering semiconducting polymers to have robust elastic properties while retaining high charge mobilities; a way of combining conducting polymers (PEDOT) with hydrogels so that you can pattern them and then hydrate to produce super-soft devices; a full-on demonstration of artificial skin for sensing applications.  Very impressive stuff. 

Today, we had a colloquium by Gabe Aeppli of ETH and the Paul Scherrer Institute, talking about x-ray ptychographic imaging.  Ptychography is a simple enough idea.  Use a coherent source of radiation to illuminate some sample at some spot, and with a large-area detector, measure the diffraction pattern.  Now scan the spot over the sample (including perhaps rotating the sample) and record all those diffraction patterns as well.  With the right approach, you can combine all of those diffraction patterns and invert to get the spatial distribution of the scatterers (that is, the matter in the sample).  Sounds reasonable, but these folks have taken it to the next level (pdf here).   The video I'm embedding here is the old result from 2017.  The 2019 paper I linked here is even more impressive, able to image, nondestructively, in 3D, individual circuit elements within a commercial integrated circuit at nanoscale resolution.  It's clear that a long-term goal is to be able to image, non-destructively, the connectome of brains. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Brief items

Here are some items of interest:

  • An attempt to lay out a vision for research in the US beyond Science: The Endless Frontier.  The evolving roles of the national academies are interesting, though I found the description of the future of research universities to be rather vague - I'm not sure growing universities to the size of Arizona State is the best way to provide high quality access to knowledge for a large population.  It still feels to me like an eventual successful endpoint for online education could be natural language individualized tutoring ("Alexa, teach me multivariable calculus."), but we are still a long way from there.
  • Atomic-resolution movies of chemistry are still cool.
  • Dan Ralph at Cornell has done a nice service to the community by making his lecture notes available on the arxiv.  The intent is for these to serve as a supplement to a solid state course such as one out of Ashcroft and Mermin, bringing students up to date about Berry curvature and topology at a similar level to that famous text.
  • This preprint tries to understand an extremely early color photography process developed by Becquerel (the photovoltaic one, who was the father of the radioactivity Becquerel).  It turns out that there are systematic changes in reflectivity spectra of the exposed Ag/AgCl films depending on the incident wavelength.  Why the reflectivity changes that way remains a mystery to me after reading this.
  • On a related note, this led me to this PNAS paper about the role of plasmons in the daguerreotype process.  Voila, nanophotonics in the 19th century.
  • This preprint (now out in Nature Nano) demonstrates incredibly sensitive measurements of torques on very rapidly rotating dielectric nanoparticles.  This could be used to see vacuum rotational friction.
  • The inventors of chemically amplified photoresists have been awarded the Charles Stark Draper prize.  Without that research, you probably would not have the computing device sitting in front of you....

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Wolf Prize and how condensed matter physics works

The Wolf Prize in Physics for 2020 was announced yesterday, and it's going to Pablo Jarillo-Herrero, Allan MacDonald, and Rafi Bistritzer, for twisted bilayer graphene.  This prize is both well-deserved and a great example of how condensed matter physics works.  

MacDonald and Bistritzer did key theory work (for example) highlighting how the band structure of twisted bilayer graphene would become very interesting for certain twist angles - how the moire pattern from the two layers would produce a lateral periodicity, and that interactions between the layers would lead to very flat bands.  Did they predict every exotic thing that has been seen in this system?  No, but they had the insight to get key elements, and the knowledge that flat bands would likely lead to many competing energy scales, including electron-electron interactions, the weak kinetic energy of the flat bands, the interlayer coupling, effective magnetic interactions, etc.  Jarillo-Herrero was the first to implement this with sufficient control and sample quality to uncover a remarkable phase diagram involving superconductivity and correlated insulating states.  Figuring out what is really going on here and looking at all the possibilities in related layered materials will keep people busy for years.   (As an added example of how condensed matter works as a field, Bistritzer is in industry working for Applied Materials.)

All of this activity and excitement, thanks to feedback between well-motivated theory and experiment, is how the bulk of physics that isn't "high energy theory" actually works.  

Monday, January 13, 2020

Popular treatment of condensed matter - topics

I'm looking more seriously at trying to do some popularly accessible writing about condensed matter.  I have a number of ideas about what should be included in such a work, but I'm always interested in other peoples' thoughts on this.   Suggestions? 

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Brief items

Happy new year.  As we head into 2020, here are a few links I've been meaning to point out:

  • This paper is a topical review of high-throughput (sometimes called combinatorial) approaches to searching for new superconductors.   The basic concept is simple enough:  co-deposit multiple different elements in a way that deliberately produces compositional gradients across the target substrate.  This can be done via geometry of deposition, or with stencils that move during the deposition process.  Then characterize the local properties in an efficient way across the various compositional gradients, looking for the target properties you want (e.g., maximum superconducting transition temperature).  Ideally, you combine this with high-throughput structural characterization and even annealing or other post-deposition treatment.  Doing all of this well in practice is a craft.  
  • Calling back to my post on this topic, Scientific American has an article about wealth distribution based on statistical mechanics-like models of economies.   It's hard for me to believe that some of these insights are really "new" - seems like many of these models could have been examined decades ago....
  • This is impressive.  Jason Petta's group at Princeton has demonstrated controlled entanglement between single-electron spins in Si/SiGe gate-defined quantum dots separated by 4 mm.  That may not sound all that exciting; one could use photons to entangle atoms separated by km, as has been done with optical fiber.  However, doing this on-chip using engineered quantum dots (with gates for tunable control) in an arrangement that is in principle scalable via microfabrication techniques is a major achievement.
  • Just in case you needed another demonstration that correlated materials like the copper oxide superconductors are complicated, here you go.  These investigators use an approach based on density functional theory (see here, here, and here), and end up worrying about energetic competition between 26 different electronic/magnetic phases.  Regardless of the robustness of their specific conclusions, just that tells you the inherent challenge of those systems:  Many possible ordered states all with very similar energy scales.