Yvonne Carts-Powell

Applied physics is *fun*

In Uncategorized on October 5, 2008 at 9:41 pm

This gets a little long, so to summarize: physics is fun, science writing is the best job ever! Also, I’ll be liveblogging Heroes on Monday evening.

Last weekend, I got my science geek on at the Springer Forum, a one-day gathering of some of the hottest physics researchers on the US East Coast (not to mention some who flew in from Germany, from Israel, from the Other Coast).

a spring made of light is harder to compress than diamond

Let me tell you, folks, applied physics is fun! At least at this level. It is, when Nobel Laureate Wolfgage Ketterle tells how if you cool stuff down enough, you can get a group of atoms that are spread way apart (farther away from each other than you’d usually have even in a gas) to behave as a solid. What he sees is a new ultracold, ultra-low-density solid. (Ready for a higher level of geek? If I understood correctly, he showed how superfluidity, which is a fermion process, and superconductivity, which is a boson process, are, actually, just different aspects of the same thing. Take a look at his MIT lab’s work at the Center for UltraCold Atoms.)

The forum was largely in honor of two other researchers, though: Tony Heinz from Columbia University and Phaedron Avouris from IBM, who are in the process of figuring out how carbon nanotubes and graphene (and wow, graphene is a subject for another day, because it is a neat and bizarre material) act. Congratulations to both men for winning the Julius Springer Prize!

Other really fascinating subjects included a discussion of testing Casimir forces, by Federico Capasso of Harvard. Also, Nergis Mavalvala of MIT talked about a spring that is harder to compress than diamond — a spring made of light — and how it’s being used to look for gravity waves. (Bonus points to Professor Mavalvala: she was animated and interesting enough to keep us awake and interested in the late afternoon slump.)

I really really love my profession of science writing, and seldom more so than when listening to very smart people talk about really cool science. And, I admit, it’s also a lot of fun to natter at the coffee break with the likes of Michael Stuke of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry (who is also the editor of journal Applied Physics A) and fellow science writer and friend Jeff Hecht. (I failed to get an introduction to the legendary Mildred Dresselhaus, alas. Mostly, I just wanted to thank her for existing, and breaking a bunch of glass ceilings.) And although I have been writing for years about Stefan Hell’s work on tricking optical microscopes into providing images much much smaller than they usually can, it was a pleasure listening to him talk about developing the process, how it works, why it’s useful (this would be where the biotech people jump up and down, because there just ain’t any good alternatives to visible light for imaging the innards of living cells) and what’s next.

*I’ve been the techie in the lab, trying to get equipment to work (truism: the equipment never works. Except occasionally when it does. Those rare occasions are when you take all your data); sitting down with a pencil and a really big piece of paper trying to figure out how to design the experiment so that the results would be measureable; and scratching my head and trying to figure out what kind of math was both applicable and useful to sorting through my data. I understand and respect the process, but I wasn’t a very good experimentalist and I didn’t have the math chops for the theory, nor the vision for setting up good thought-experiments. But going to hear the results — after all the sweat and toil and uncertainty is over — explained by hot-shots of science, who do have mad science skilz? That’s like being invited to a friend’s house to eat dessert: none of the dirty dishes, all the delight.


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