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Mildred Dresselhaus, 1930-2017
By Shlomo Maital
On Feb. 20, MIT Professor of physics and electrical engineering, Mildred Dresselhaus, passed away at her home in Cambridge, MA. She was 86. Born Mildred Spiewak, she was the very first female Institute Professor at MIT (an Institute Professor is a super-distinguished professor).
Dresselhaus was known as the Queen of Carbon, in scientific circles. She used magnetic fields and lasers to map out the electric structure of carbon and found that by stitching in alkali materials, carbon can become a superconductor. She pioneered in researching “buckyballs” (fullerenes), soccer-ball shaped cages of carbon atoms, widely used for drug delivery, lubricants and catalysts. She also had the idea of rolling a single layer of carbon atoms into a hollow tube, the nanotube, making a structure with the strength of steel but just 1/10,000th the width of a human hair.
Dresselhaus published over 1,700 scientific papers. Her life was one of struggle and perseverance. She was the daughter of poor Jewish immigrants from Poland, and grew up in the Bronx. She went through university on scholarship.
She once recounted, according to the New York Times, “my early years were spent in a dangerous multiracial low-income neighborhood. My early elementary school memories up through ninth grade are of teachers struggling to maintain class discipline with occasional coverage of academics”. From age 6, she travelled long distances on the subway. She got in to Hunter High School, in Manhattan, and then Hunter College. Her lifelong mentor was Nobel Laureate Rosalyn Yalow, from whom she took an elementary physics course.
Why did she choose to study carbon? Because it was unpopular and considered uninteresting, she observed. She and her husband were hired by MIT in 1960, because MIT was one of the few places that would hire a husband and wife team. At Lincoln Labs, she was one of only two women, out of a scientific staff of 1,000.
She is survived by her husband Gene, and four children, Marianne, Carl, Paul and Eliot, and five grandchildren. She will be remembered as the first woman to secure a full professorship at MIT, in 1968, and she worked “very vigorously to ensure she would not be the last”, observed Natalie Angier, in the New York Times.
How Technion Physicists Cracked a Mystery of Biology
By Shlomo Maital
A team of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology physicists (led by Profs. Kinneret Keren and Erez Braun, with a group of students) has published breakthrough research in the journal Cell Reports. It is unusual for physicists to publish in a biology journal. Here is the story.
The subject of the research was the amazing ability of the “hydra”, a tiny fresh water animal, 1 cm. in size (about half an inch), to regenerate itself. The hydra’s skeleton has a built-in memory that enables it to regenerate. If you take a piece of hydra tissue, it can soon regenerate the entire animal. But how? Until now, it was thought that this worked through chemical signals that guided the tissue on how to create a head, tentacles and a foot.
But the new Technion study finds a different explanation. It is done with thin protein fibers. The skeleton of the protein fibers survive, and they instruct cells how to arrange themselves to create an adult body. First, the pieces of tissue severed from the hydra form a small ball. This forces the protein fibers to balance the preservation of the old skeleton structure and adaptation to the new ball. New body parts develop, based on the pattern information stored in the skeleton. The ball soon sprouts a mouth and a whole new animal. The physicist researchers used their science to understand the physical role of the “ball”.
Could this one day lead to a technology that enables humans to regenerate their body parts? Far fetched? Indeed. But it could happen.
The fruitful research of physicists in biology reminds me of a meeting I had with a distinguished Indian scientist, during a recent visit, who decades ago pioneered in biophysics, which has since yielded huge bounties.
Innovator – if you can link two fields that are heretofore unconnected, you may come up with change-the-world ideas.
Lighting Up Our World with LED: 2014 Nobel in Physics
By Shlomo Maital
Three Japanese scientists have won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics, for their contribution – lighting up the world with LED – light emitting diode technology.
According to today’s New York Times: The three scientists, working together and separately, found a way to produce blue light beams from semiconductors in the early 1990s. Others had produced red and green diodes, but without blue diodes, white light could not be produced, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its prize citation. “They succeeded where everyone else had failed.” The Nobel committee said that light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, would be the lighting source of the 21st century, just as the incandescent bulb illuminated the 20th.
The New York Times noted: “The LED lamp holds great promise for increasing the quality of life for over 1.5 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity grids,” the Nobel committee said. “Due to low power requirements, it can be powered by cheap local solar power.”
According to Wikipedia, “a light-emitting diode (LED) is a two-lead semiconductor light source: basic … diode, which emits light when activated. When a voltage is applied to the leads, electrons are able to recombine with electron holes within the device, releasing energy in the form of photons. This effect is called electroluminescence, and the color of the light (corresponding to the energy of the photon) is determined by the energy band gap of the semiconductor.”
The three Japanese scientists managed to achieve “the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes, which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources.” Previously, light was created with LED technology, but in colors that did not enable replacement of the Edison incandescent bulbs.
Nakamura worked for a time for a Japanese company, Nichia. Nichia awarded him…$200 for his invention. Nakamura left the company in 1999 to join U. of California, Santa Barbara, and sued the company for a fair share of the immense royalties. He settled for $8.1 million.
The Three Intersecting Circles of Innovation
By Shlomo Maital
My attention was recently drawn to a three-year-old report, done by MIT scholars, for the health science research community. The report is The Thid Revolution: The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and Engineering. The authors, which include stellar figures like Profs. Phillip Sharp and Robert Langer, argue that “convergence will be the emerging paradigm for how medical research will be conducted in the future.”
In order for this convergence to happen, they say, we will not “not simply collaboration between disciplines but true disciplinary integration.”
Today, the structure of nearly all the universities in the world is obsolete, ancient, creaky and counterproductive. It is based on faculties, which are silos that work in direct opposition to convergence. The exceptions are research institutes that are cross-disciplinary, specifically nanotechnology. My university has a Nanotechnology Center that draws scholars from many disciplines, and the resulting integration has been tremendously productive. A small example: Prof. Hossam Haick, whose discipline is chemical engineering, but who has harnessed nanotechnology, electronics, chemistry, physics and engineering to produce an ‘electronic nose’, which can sniff cancer molecules, for instance. He recently delivered the first course in Arabic, on Coursera, on nanotechnology.
Structure is not strategy, it is sometimes said. But, sometimes it is. Let’s change the structure of universities. Let’s find a way to restructure them, so that each faculty member has a very clear area of expertise, a clearly-defined discipline, but also has broad knowledge of other fields and above all, works as part of a convergence interdisciplinary team. And for this to work, their offices have to be adjacent…. Despite IT and networking, nothing beats face-to-face conversations over coffee.
Convergence poses a big challenge to those who would innovate. You need to achieve two conflicting goals, both of which are highly challenging.
First, as Nobel Laureate Dan Shechtman repeatedly urges, you must become expert, truly expert, at SOMEthing…. his expertise was in electron microscopy, and it enabled him to overcome fierce opposition to his discoveries, and ultimately win the big prize. You need deep knowledge in at least one field or sub-field.
Second, you need to become curious and learn a great many things about a great many fields, not in depth but sufficient to understand them. You need wide knowledge, surface knowledge, in just about everything. Even if you have team members who have deep knowledge, it still helps a lot to innovate if you have basic understanding of other, distant disciplines.
In future, all the major breakthroughs will occur at the point of convergence among several disciplines. In order for you, innovator, to be there, you need to acquire depth, and breadth.