It’s Quantum Mechanics… Or Something

Aerial View of the Spallation Neutron Source

Aerial View of the Spallation Neutron Source

Scientists get things wrong very often. I, for one, am thankful they do. Being wrong is an opportunity to learn new and interesting things about the world. Or it might simply mean we need to do more work in order to see how our hypothesis was wrong. Giving scientists an opportunity to be wrong and the opportunity to simply explore is one of the best things we can do to make better and more useful technology. And in the last couple weeks we’ve gotten to see hints as to what this powerful research can bring about.

First, I want to explain the humor of my title. Those of you familiar with scientific skepticism understand that there are many pseudoscience peddlers that try to use quantum mechanics as a way to explain their bogus claims. The recent news I will briefly explain next actually does involve quantum mechanics. Even for physicists, it is not an easy concept. I will use an explanation that involves quantum mechanics, but at a very basic level. Please forgive me if you have some background in the subject and I over-simplify it, but I want to make this accessible for a wide range of readers.

The first story is an international team has been studying the properties of various metal oxides, specifically transition metals. Transition metals are the ones found in the center of the periodic table. As the authors state:

Transition metal oxides have emerged as one of the foci for condensed matter physics research due to the multitude of structural, electronic and magnetic phenomena they exhibit.

What they found when they built these metal oxide crystals and looked at them using high-resolution scanning tunneling microscopy was the pattern on the top was distorted, but in a regular zig-zag pattern. This was unexpected at first, but after running calculations they found it made sense these patterns would emerge.

The basic idea from quantum mechanics at work here is that electrons eventually end up at the lowest possible energy state, at least when energy is not being added from an outside source. The only way for the electrons of these oxygen atoms to be at their lowest state was to organize themselves in these patterns, something confirmed by the modeling done after observing the patterns. As Zheng Gai, one of the study’s authors explains:

The oxygen totally changes the surface energy. Once you introduce oxygen, the electrons don’t like to form a straight line; they zigzag to get to a lower energy state. This distortion is a very common concept in bulk materials, but nobody has been able to show this effect on the surface before.

The researchers are very excited because they found that manipulating one of the atoms caused the others to shift as well. This gives these materials great potential for use in sensors and other electronic devices.

The authors of this paper have been pretty prolific. As the article points out, this is the seventh publication by the group in four years, which have appeared in some of the most respected journals in the scientific world, such as Science and Nature. This is fantastic and complex work. It has been made possible because of investment in science by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory through the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

Another study regarding metal oxides examined the properties of magnetite films when formed high in the atmosphere without the same concentrations of oxygen usually present during the films’ facture at ground level. While the researchers found that this lack of oxygen changed the conductive properties of the bulk (inner) material, they found the surface was remarkably consistent in its properties throughout a wide range of conditions. While one could speculate on the usefulness of such properties, lead author Paul Snijders commented on what this means in the short term:

I always say that in basic science we are discovering the alphabet. How these letters will be designed into a useful technological book is hard to predict.

That’s a pretty large set of letters, again coming out of ORNL.

Iron-Based Superconductor at ORNL

Iron-Based Superconductor at ORNL

So what’s the value if we don’t see any immediate usefulness? There are some great aspects in having a wider variety of metals from which to make sensors, electronics, and batteries. Some metals are easier to mine and recover due to their abundance and their natural state. They require less energy input to both mine and refine, and have less waste by-product. This could make electronics cheaper and put less stress on the environment. It could also make them easier to recycle.

Another aspect is transition metal oxides are where superconductors are found. Studying the properties could lead to a better understanding of what makes something turn into a superconductor, and possibly find higher temperature superconductors which could lead to a huge energy savings.

Electronics in general could become more efficient. As we look to extend the life of batteries and yet increase the usefulness of the electronics we carry with us, this could lead to conveniences both in daily life and for various work applications. By being able to reduce the size of sensors, we could carry more sensors with us, allowing us to customize how much data we want to gather to suit our own needs. This extends to things like medical condition monitoring, environmental monitoring, and many other uses.

Whenever someone asks me why science is so important, it is hard to answer simply. Science has brought about extended lifespans, added convenience, added safety, added comfort, and many other things we might not even think about. It also continues to both satisfy our curiosity while spawning new, more curious inquiries about the Universe. Sometimes, we just don’t know how a discovery might be important to our future. But as long as we keep exploring, we will find out soon enough.

About Eric Hall

My day job is teaching physics at the University of Minnesota, Rochester. I write about physics, other sciences, politics, education, and whatever else interests or concerns me. I am always working to be rational and reasonable, and I am always willing to improve my knowledge and change my mind when presented with new evidence.
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9 Responses to It’s Quantum Mechanics… Or Something

  1. Jon Richfield says:

    You get the scientists, for whom such things are their own justification, and the anti-scientists, who will accept no justification whatsoever, even while lolling in their seats in jet liners on the way to anti-scientific conferences and presentations. Then you get the non-scientists, who don’t understand a word you say, but will accept what you say, about as easily as they will accept the first one to get their ear on a new subject, whether he is genuine or a sucker-parasite or just assertively ignorant. Then you get the youngsters. Lord grant that you get them early enough!

  2. Vere Nekoninda says:

    Thanks for the interesting blog. I suspect that every significant discovery is only slightly understood at that moment. We may, or may not, have some idea of what a ground-breaking discovery might lead to, but thirty years later, the greatest impact might be in some other area entirely. This might be splitting hairs, but I would argue that rather than just “sometimes”, it’s every time that “we don’t know how a discovery might be important to our future.”

    Perhaps science would have more respect and support, if science writing put more attention on the process and evolution of research and discovery. I remember that my science and history textbooks always jumped to the “exciting ending” of a mature product used by millions. It took me a long time to understand why breakthrough products reported in the news, at the advanced prototype stage, still took five to ten years to become a retail product. I think it would be valuable for science journalism to talk more about the early stages, as Eric does in this posting, and about the difficult and lengthy process needed to get from, for example, the invention of the transistor to the near future’s iPhone 6.

  3. Jon Richfield says:

    Your idea would work like a bomb with scientists or scientific minds, but just TRY that with Joe Cool or Joe Public! It is “Fast forward” and “Info overload” and “Hurry up, the soapy is about to start!”
    Have you noticed the quality of sponsored science and nature shows lately?
    But don’t let me discourage you! 🙁

    • Vere Nekoninda says:

      I don’t disagree that every positive change presents a significant challenge. However, while the inertia of things as they are seems to make any change unlikely, in fact, surprising changes in society happen all the time.

  4. billkowalski2014 says:

    As knowledge has progressed through the ages, there often has been a small number of people who could understand what each new development meant, and a much larger who had trouble grasping something far beyond their education, perspective and experience. In the past the keeprs of knowledge would have been alchemists, a title which covered diverse areas like astronomy, astrology, chemistry and magic tricks. The magical has increasingly split off from the scientific, leaving us with a running battle between magical thinking and evidence-based science.

    Given the sturdy determination of people to believe in things for which there is not only no proof but also for which there is evidence which contradicts belief, it seems like this conflict will be around a long time. Science, however, is vastly ahead in the production of interesting new developments. As you say, we may not have a specific use planned for this new knowledge, but give us time.

    • Reg says:

      “In the past the keepers of knowledge would have been alchemists,”

      Strangely not the case Bill. In reading about the stratification of British society, it turns out that the lower levels of society were the harbingers of change and discovery. All this despite opposition in the form of failure by government and higher education groups to recognize the actual and potential advances being made.

      As I think may have been mentioned here before, the Oxford and Cambridge University institutions played NO part the the first Industrial Revolution that originated in England. Even the Continental inventors had to seek refuge for their inventions in England. By the time of the second Industrial Revolution, the paper qualifications issuing from certain institutions, cleaved a distinct break between the prolific inventors and the “qualified” mathematicians they were forced to engage. Ultimately unproductive was the way technical snobbery drove a division between the two groups.

      The gradual improvements in Stevenson’s steam engines were a product of his own mind because it had not yet occurred to those in educational institutions that it was in fact a direct application of science for which they were supposed to be the “keepers”.

      Davy and his Safety Lamp was an instance for which he had an immediate solution, once he was presented with the problem.

      • billkowalski2014 says:

        Thank you. I was referring to a time centuries prior when the Middle East was the center of our knowledge, such as it was.

  5. Jeff Grigg says:

    ‘ The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…” ‘
    —Isaac Asimov (1920–1992)

  6. Reg says:

    Eric a minor point depending on how you intend your comment.

    “Or it might simply mean we need to do more work in order to see how our hypothesis was wrong.”

    If a theory has been developed which shows that the hypothesis was correct, then any alterations for improvement will apply to the theory. On the other-hand, and perhaps as you intended, if the hypothesis has been shown to be incorrect, then a minor tweak to the hypothesis may be retrospectively-calculated by the difficulties encountered in the development of the operational theory.

    Sort of, “if only the hypothesis had incorporated this function, it would have worked.” Assuming that two different people have been involved, one in origination of the hypothesis and the other in its modification so that it became functional, as with Davy’s Safety Lamp, both should be credited with the invention.

    Another detail, I would never dream of saying “that’s funny,” I tend to thoughtfully murmur, “umm, that’s interesting,” as the mind races from one end of the paddock to the other with eyes defocused, meanwhile the stress is on the IN of interesting. Fastidious I know but one develops a mental routine.

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