Monday, August 27, 2007

Magic Crystals

It looks like the USA has a shortage of Magic Crystals because of under investment in basic science.

The US "is a second-class, if not a third-class, citizen" in terms of investment in the synthesis of high-temperature superconductors, heavy-fermion materials, thin films, single crystals, ultrapure semiconductors, and other specialized samples for condensed-matter experiments, says Cornell University's Séamus Davis. US scientists "have to go cap in hand to the people who lead the development of new materials in these research fields." Davis gets samples for his spectroscopic imaging scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) studies from colleagues in Japan, Canada, and the UK. "From the pure perspective of science," he says, "things are great. It's from the parochial perspective of how much belongs to the US that you may think there is a problem."

With sample synthesis on the decline in the US over the past two decades or so, increasingly the US condensed-matter community does think there is a problem. Art Ramirez, director of device physics research at Bell Labs, notes that Bell, IBM, and a few other companies led the field after World War II. But around 1986, when the first observation of high-temperature superconductivity, by Georg Bednorz and Alex Müller in Switzerland, set off a rash of activity around the globe, "industrial investment in basic research began its rapid decline," Ramirez says. "And no one has picked up the slack."

The situation is reaching crisis proportions, says Jim Eisenstein of Caltech. The US, he adds, has been the leader in uncovering the physics of two-dimensional electron systems, and "the great majority of that success involved samples grown by one person at Bell Labs. It's unstable to have only one individual at one institution making ultrahigh-purity semiconductor crystals—like everyone else, he will someday retire." Worse, he says, what if Alcatel—which last year took over Bell's parent company (see PHYSICS TODAY, February 2007, page 26)—pulls the plug?

A smattering of crystal growers work in national labs and universities across the US, but in recent years, concern in the condensed-matter community has been rising about the availability of samples, a future generation of sample growers, and competitiveness in the discovery and exploitation of new materials. A National Academy of Sciences report exploring these and related issues is due out next year.
The thing is you never know where the next breakthrough is coming from. If you have no place in your army for privates the generals will wind up without any one to command. We need to support the artisans as much as we support the big idea people. Rewards and honors and better labs.

“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” — John W. Gardner, Saturday Evening Post, December 1, 1962


linearthinker said...

So, if the problem's critical, what's preventing Cornell, Caltech, and at least a half dozen other likely institutions from funding a crystal growing lab? Wanna bet you could hide the cost of that venture in the collective petty cash accounts from the interested schools?

If they did, they wouldn't have anything to whine about. Federal grant $ is the motivation for this hand-wringing.

Honor your plumber, and your auto mechanic, if you find an honest one. Lately, I have more respect for my mechanic than for my doctor.

Snake Oil Baron said...

Strange that the importance and difficulty in making these substances has not spawned a market that some chemical company could exploit. Why has someone not started a corporation called Rare Materials R Us?