‘Mum, what is nature?’ ‘A quantum wave function, sweetie.’

thebigpicture

I vaguely remember back in my preteen years asking my mother what nature was, but not her reply. I suspect it was similar to the one she gave when I asked why it’s often said time is money. To that, I distinctly recall her answer: ‘You’ll understand some day.’ That was her way of deferring what would have been a complicated explanation of economics with the expectation that I would one day figure it out myself. Unlike my mother, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself, by Sean Carroll, does offer an answer to an equally complex question, ‘what is nature?’—a satisfyingly simple and concrete one: a quantum wave function. Continue reading

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Dude, where’s my down?

universesandbox
Screenshot of the Solar System from the PC simulator ‘Universe Sandbox’

Every other week my colleagues and I have a creative writing session. This week the first exercise involved answering random questions, some of which are more personal and I’d rather not get into. (Okay, fine. My pet peeve is auto-play videos on the Internet, I have no ex-boyfriends to murmur regrets about; and I ate muesli, kung pao chicken and lasagna that day). The second was a riddle. Here is mine:

I am one of the slightest things you will ever know, but you feel me all the time. I suck you in, I pull you down; I show you up and I whirl you around. The more you are, the more I am. I can bend your light and curve the space around you. What am I?

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Seasoned researcher has his eye on the crystal

In the hallway on the fifth floor of the Natural Sciences building at the University of Pretoria, a plaque hangs on one door declaring that the research conducted beyond it is worthy of tax money from the National Research Foundation (NRF).

Professor of physics Francois Auret, 65, emerges as the slender passageway curves through the towers of electronic equipment, arrays of screens and piles of paperwork, chatting to a co-worker on stools, knees cocked, as though they were in a bar. Inside the lab, Professor Auret probes the crystal lattices of silicon, a common semiconductor used in electronics. His work on electronic materials and thin films involves introducing impurities or defects in the perfect lattice so that they manifest certain exploitable properties which can be used to build faster and more efficient technologies from light switches to computers.

“We test the results of the defects, whether they are detrimental or beneficial. [For example,] a silicon switch can become faster and faster. You increase the speed if you put defects in … But for a [photovoltaic solar panel] cell, it doesn’t work.”

Diving from the Crystal: Physics professor Danie Auret holds a model of a crystal lattice. His research probes the properties of silicon crystals for the production of better and faster electronics.
Divining from the crystal: Physics professor Danie Auret holds a model of a crystal lattice. His research probes the properties of silicon crystals for the production of better and faster electronics.

In order to receive funding from the NRF, a researcher is rated in a specific category in a peer-review process. “The better papers you publish, the higher your rating, the higher your funding,” Auret said. The NRF finances the bulk of his research. The rest is picked up by the University of Pretoria.

Auret, in 39 years of research, has published 246 research papers which have been cited almost 1 500 times combined. He can barely recount the moment he handed his first paper in and endured the long wait until the journal’s response, which ranges from six weeks to a couple of months depending on the journal. “It was so long ago,” he said.

Researchers can nominate two or three possible referees who will evaluate their work. “The rule is that they must be at arm’s length.” In other words, one should recommend people with whom they are not too familiar. “It’s a free process, so I can’t just ask everyone in the world.” The journal can then choose to send the paper out to them. “The referee then writes a report back, commenting on several aspects: is the work relevant? Is it new? Is it important work? Is it good physics? Is the work error-free? Is the title appropriate? Things like that.”

If you’re starting out as a researcher and your paper is turned down, “it’s a blow. That’s why you need supervisors.” Auret was supervised and mentored through his first three publications from 1974 by Johannes H van der Merwe, who was head of the department of physics then until 1980 and who was an A-rated scientist in Auret’s estimation. “He said, ‘You’re my student. We publish together.’” Auret, then a part-time PhD student, co-authored three papers with him before Van der Merwe took off the training wheels.

After the researcher’s paper is peer reviewed, the journal mails the report. The answer he or she get depends on what happens behind the scenes at the journal.

“So if they (the peer reviewers) feel I cheated or something, they can write to the journal editors and say, ‘I think this guy did something [unkosher]. Just forget about it.’ That I don’t get to see. Then the journal tells me, ‘Sorry, we [are not taking] the paper.”

It’s incredibly important that a scientist is published regularly. “When you apply for a job, on your CV, if you have one publication in three years [they’ll ask,] “What have you done with the other years?” said Auret. “Publishing regularly is very important for you.

“It’s rigorous,” he admitted. “It depends on your personality. But unfortunately you have to publish. I love it.”