10minus9 interview: Philip Moriarty (Part 1)

As part of a new series here on 10minus9, I’m interviewing various people working in and around nanoscience. First up is professor of physics, nanoscientist  and all-round nice guy, Philip Moriarty, who I was lucky enough to have as a PhD supervisor.

He’s featured in several of the University of Nottingham’s sixty symbols videos, which I personally think are fantastic for explaining some complex, and sometimes weird physics in an accessible way without dumbing down. He’s also heavily involved in running the university’s nanotechnology and nanoscience centre, which opened in 2007.

  • Can you define nanoscience in one sentence?

Nanoscience is the study and manipulation of matter on length scales where a small change in the size of a structure can radically alter its physical and chemical properties. Very difficult to provide a definition of nanoscience which covers all bases in a single sentence!

  • At what point did you know you wanted to be a scientist? Was there one thing that inspired you?

A really important early influence was my uncle. He was a radio amateur (radio ham) and I have very fond memories of spending time when I was eight or nine learning about basic electrical circuits (batteries, bulbs, electromagnets, capacitors, oscillators) from him. He also introduced me to the “Ladybird” series of books on electronics when I was a little older. He and I used to build circuits from those books where we’d simply hold components in place on a piece of wood using drawing pins. I still vividly remember the thrill of building a crystal radio on a piece of  softwood and hearing music from “out of the aether” – the idea that radio waves alone could drive the circuit with no batteries or amplifier fascinated me. My parents also bought me a microscope for Christmas around about the same time and guess that’s what initially triggered my interest in microscopy. So I knew from a fairly early age that I wanted to be a scientist. As a teenager, however, my choice of potential future career switched to rock star (..ahem…).

  • If you weren’t a scientist, what would you have wanted to be?

A musician or sound engineer. I (mis)spent a lot of my youth playing guitar in a number of amateur rock bands. We weren’t successful at all – the pinnacle of our career was a demo played on a BBC Radio 1 rock show -  but I’m fairly certain that if I hadn’t continued with my degree/PhD I’d now be playing in some dodgy covers band or working in a recording studio. (Actually, if I could find the time I’d still like to play in a dodgy covers band!). I failed the third year of my four year BSc in Applied Physics degree because I was significantly more focussed on making music than on physics at the time.  Looking back, however, failing that year was the best thing that could have happened to me because otherwise I would have coasted through and graduated with a significantly lower class degree. Instead, failing made me reconsider my options and I worked very hard in the fourth year (particularly on my final year project) and rediscovered my passion for physics.

  • What was the band called?

The band was called Sentience.

  • I was hoping for a really embarrassing heavy-metal band name!

The music was embarrassing enough!

  • How did you come to specialise in nanoscience?

I wasn’t even considering doing a PhD until a scanning tunnelling microscopy (STM)-focussed PhD project, based both at the university where I did my BSc (Dublin City University (DCU)) and at the Physikalisch Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) in Braunschweig, Germany, was advertised around about the same time as I graduated. This was back in 1990 when Eigler and Schweizer had just published their famous “IBM” atomic manipulation work and there was immense excitement about the potential of scanning probes. I decided to take up the offer of doing an STM-focussed PhD. It also helped that my PhD supervisor, Greg Hughes, was extremely enthusiastic and engaging about the research and “sold” the project to me very well!

  • Can you describe your current research in one paragraph? (as technically as you like)

I work in a variety of fields in nanoscience including self-assembly and pattern formation, fullerenes, synchrotron-based spectroscopy, and charge transport in nanoparticle assemblies, but my primary project at the moment focuses on an area which what at least one funding agency in the UK has termed “extreme nanotechnology”. The bulk of my funding is related to the development of atomic manipulation protocols on semiconductor and insulator surfaces (silicon and diamond). The aim is to explore to what extent it’s possible to fabricate nanostructures, atom-by-atom and automatically (i.e. under computer control), using scanning probes. A key aspect of this work is to move away from 2D manipulation (i.e. atom sliding/pushing/pulling) and to attempt fabrication of 3D structures. This is immensely challenging because it entails gaining fine control of an element of a scanning probe microscope which, although integral to its operation, is still generally a key unknown: the tip. Somewhat controversially, the project examines the extent to which Eric Drexler’s ideas regarding force-driven chemical reactions at the atomic/molecular scale (mechanosynthesis) can be realised and was inspired by a lengthy debate I had on the subject of Drexlarian nanotechnology with Chris Phoenix at the Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology a number of years ago.

  • If you had to explain your research to a stranger at a bus stop, what would you say?

We study and manipulate the fundamental building blocks of materials (atoms and molecules), exploring and exploiting the forces between those building blocks to generate new types of structure that may not have existed in Nature previously. By controlling how atoms interact with each other we can design tiny structures (thousands of times smaller than, for example, a red blood cell) which in turn can be used to dictate how electrons behave at those scales. Once we control what the electrons are doing, we have the ability to manipulate and change not only the electronic properties of the structure (is it a conductor or an insulator?) but the optical properties (what colour is it? what colour light does it emit?), and, indeed, its magnetic behaviour.

  • Who is your scientific hero, and why?

Very, very difficult to choose just one – that’s like asking me for my favourite song/album (an impossible task) – so I’m going to cheat again and name a few. I guess an obvious choice is Richard Feynman, given that he’s considered to be the forefather of nanotechnology and foresaw the possibility of atomic and molecular manipulation back in the late fifties. (Just how much influence Feynman actually had on the development of nanoscience is, however, contested to some degree). He was also an excellent communicator and every time I come back to his classic “Lectures on Physics” volumes, or his popular science books such as “Six Easy Pieces”, I find a neat way of explaining a tricky concept.

“Hero” is perhaps too strong a word but the ideas and methods established by Fourier, a French mathematician and physicist, certainly have made a huge impression on me (and practically every other physicist). Fourier developed a method for breaking down complicated functions, signals, and patterns into a set of simple sine and cosine waves. This idea has quite incredibly far-reaching consequences, particularly because at the nanoscale matter doesn’t behave like simple “billiard ball” particles but has a wave-like character. Fourier’s work, developed in the early 19th century,  therefore underpins much of the key physics underlying quantum mechanics and, in particular, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (developed in the 1920s). When I (finally!) realised this as an undergraduate it totally changed my perception of quantum mechanics. Fourier’s work is also essential for analysing the patterns I talk about above.

Other inspiring figures include Alan Turing (inventor of modern computing and someone else who made major contributions to our understanding of pattern formation) and Carl Sagan (I guess that there are few physicists of my generation who were not inspired by Sagan’s Cosmos television programme in the 80s).

I should also mention David Colquhoun (DC’s Improbable Science).  Although David’s research is rather far removed from the type of research I do, he’s an inspiration in terms of his public engagement activities and his tireless battle against nonsensical mumbo jumbo in all its myriad forms including homeopathy and the ever-increasing levels of managerial and HR bollocks that clog up universities (e.g. Colquhoun’s Rule #1 – Never trust anyone who uses the term “stakeholder” ). He also writes regularly about  the dangers of the marketization and corporatization of academic research. His blog is hugely influential.

  • OK, but if you have to pick just one?

To Be Continued…

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One Comment on “10minus9 interview: Philip Moriarty (Part 1)”

  1. Tom Hayton Says:

    Shards of Fourier analysis…interesting and lucidly presented!

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