Tag Archives: Motivation

Social and Moral Responsibility of a Scientist

To what extent do scientists and engineers have a responsibility to try to solve the world’s great problems at large? Let me state right at the beginning of the post that I do not have an answer to this question, but I just wanted to raise a few points to start a discussion.

During the WWII period in the United States, many of the nation’s top physicists were corralled to Los Alamos, New Mexico to work at the Manhattan Project in effort to build a nuclear weapon. Moreover, the scientists at Bell Labs, a private laboratory under the auspices of AT&T, aided in the war effort most notably by working on radar technology and also by enabling secure communication among the Allies by developing SIGSALY.

During the Cold War Space Race, US scientists and engineers were again called upon, this time at NASA, to make sure the the United States was able to land an astronaut on the moon before the Soviets. With a lot of money and effort, scientists were able to deliver on the promise by John F. Kennedy to do so before 1970.

While these were under different circumstances, i.e. wartime, scientists responded when called upon by the government. There are other numerous examples outside the US, where scientists have worked in close quarters with the government, such as in the former USSR.

Today, however, the issues are a little different. The looming potential problems caused by greenhouse gas emissions due to rapid industrial development are a “peacetime” concern. This time, also, it isn’t a single government that has to corral the scientists, it is all of them.

The question now is, even in the absence of large-scale government action on these matters, to what extent are physicists and other scientists responsible for addressing these problems? Many engineering departments and national labs are currently engaged in developing battery technologies, more efficient solar cells, transparent solar cells, etc. (funded by the government). Many physicists continue to work on superconductivity with the hope that it may solve the energy transportation and storage problem. But the urgency is clearly not the same as in wartime.

It is largely public money that educates most of us, funds most of our research, yet much of the research we undertake does not have foreseeable implications for the grander problems at large. The fact that scientists and engineers are some of the best placed in terms of education and technical ability to solve these problems does put some burden on us.

Left alone, I would love to spend all my time doing basic science without looking up to see that the world is facing some pretty grand challenges. Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury, and I do think it would be fair for governments to require us to address these problems by requesting PIs to spend a certain percentage of their research time devoted to these kinds of pressing problems. Perhaps a wartime mindset is needed to solve this problem.

Lastly, I would like to stress that in the two cases mentioned above, WWII and the Space Race, the US economy came out faring better after the heavy investment in science and technology. Industrialized nations can do the same in the present time by investing more in the world’s greener energy technologies, which undoubtedly must be the future of humans.

Comments welcome.

Neil deGrasse Tyson on NASA Funding

I reiterate a previous post about scientific public intellectuals. There are few scientists as impassioned, articulate and persuasive as Neil deGrasse Tyson as evidenced by this short clip:

Let me also quote his inspirational testimony in front of the United States Senate:

The 2008 bank bailout of $750 billion was greater than all the money NASA had received in its half-century history.

Sonoluminescence

The curious, and thus far unexplained, phenomenon of sonoluminescence was discovered in the 1930s, but extensive experiments have only been conducted in the past few decades, with the Putterman Group at UCLA featuring prominently. When a bubble sits in a fluid medium, e.g. water, an acoustic standing wave traps the bubble at an anti-node, keeping the bubble fixed in position in the water, as you can see below (the little blue dot occurs at the position of the bubble):

What then happens is rather spectacular. The bubble, sitting at the anti-node, endures oscillations in its radius due to the compression and rarefaction of the surrounding water. When the bubble collapses (about 40,000 times per second), it emits light each time! The light can even be seen with the naked eye in the laboratory. Here is a rather stunning movie of the phenomenon:

It was subsequently deduced by Flannigan and Suslick (pdf!) that the temperature inside the collapsing bubble is approximately a whopping 20,000 Kelvin (as a reference, the surface of the sun is ~6000 Kelvin). This has led to speculations about atomic fusion inside the bubble, but no evidence for extra neutron production exists. As with any claim of tabletop fusion, there exist allegations of data falsification related to this.

I was lucky enough to study this phenomenon in an undergraduate lab, and it must be said that experiments like these had an impact in making me decide to become an experimental physicist.

A Universe in Every Solid

I am often asked by close friends and family: why condensed matter physics? What is it? What kinds of applications are there? Basically, they are trying to ask in a round-about way: why do you do what you do?

This gets to the heart of why we are starting this blog. In condensed matter physics, we are concerned with creating, discovering and quantifying new phases of matter. Just like in any realm of creative endeavor, one does not know where it is going to lead, and that is precisely why it is worth doing.

For me, there are few things more exciting than discovering a new type of quasiparticle in a solid. Particle physicists are often concerned with discovering constituent particles that can be observed when you take other particles apart. In condensed matter physics, we are concerned with the new types of quasiparticles that can be observed with you put other particles together.

Condensed matter physicists are in some sense creating new little universes with new quasiparticles when they discover new phases of matter. With the number of elements in the periodic table and the number of knobs the condensed matter physicist can turn (i.e. magnetic field, pressure, temperature, etc.), the number of “universes” the condensed matter physicist can explore are almost limitless and are only currently bound by one’s imagination.

These phases of matter or “universes” can sometimes manifest themselves on a macroscopic scale in spectacular ways such as quantized vorticity in superfluid 4He, dissipationless flow of electrons in a superconductor and protected edge states in topological insulators and quantum Hall systems. All of these phenomena are curiously stunning and one gets the feeling that we are just scratching the surface of what is physically possible.

So ultimately, I do what I do because the space for creativity and discovery is vast, it constantly forces me to formulate pictures without logical inconsistencies and most importantly I enjoy it!