10minus9 interview: Philip Moriarty (Part 2)
- OK, but if you have to pick just one?
Let’s go with Fourier.
- One major theme of your research has been pattern formation- why is this so interesting to you?
Every scientist searches for patterns in their data, whether those data arise from a highly complicated state-of-the-art particle physics detector (generating terabytes of measurements), a simple first year undergraduate experiment on the diffraction of light, or a digital image of a micro-organism. We spend a lot of time thinking up different ways to represent the data so that the underlying pattern is easier to see. (We plot graphs rather than display the data as columns of numbers for precisely this reason). What really fascinates me – and very many other scientists – is when very similar patterns appear across widely different length scales.
Although we’re trained as physics undergraduates to focus on highly ordered crystalline systems (which are defined by a regular, repeating unit cell), cellular networks, which are substantially less ordered, are ubiquitous in Nature. A key example is the polygonal pattern formed on the hide of a giraffe. A very similar type of pattern appears on much smaller length scales – as in, for example, the microstructure of a cork from a wine bottle – and on rather larger length scales. Remarkably, the large scale structure of the universe, i.e. the distribution of galactic material, is also best described as a cellular network (the “cosmic foam.”)
The human brain can often be tricked into seeing patterns and correlations even when none exist so quantitative mathematical analysis of patterns is essential. Remarkably, when these mathematical analyses are applied we sometimes see that patterns formed at the microscopic (or nanoscopic!) level can be virtually indistinguishable from their counterparts observed in the everyday world or on much, much larger scales. Foams are one example and I benefitted immensely from conversations with an astronomer colleague in Nottingham whose image analysis techniques for examining distributions of galaxies were directly applicable to our work on nanoparticle cellular networks.
It’s the “universality” of certain types of patterns that so intrigues us as scientists. Seeing the same type of pattern crop up in a variety of systems which have very different physical/chemical properties is fascinating. I enthusiastically recommend Philip Ball’s “The Self-made Tapestry” (and the more recent extended three volume version: “Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts”) for an excellent popular science introduction to pattern formation.
- If you could find the answer to any one nanoscience question, what would it be?
Given that much of nanoscience involves the application and exploitation of quantum mechanics concepts, I’ll be a little cheeky and recouch the question in terms of fundamental quantum physics. The burning question I’d like answered is “What is the nature of the wavefunction?” Debates about the physical significance of the wavefunction have been going on for almost a century now and, as Lee Smolin suggests in “The Trouble with Physics”, we’re going to have to put aside the “shut up and calculate” mentality and get back to trying to address the thorny philosophical issues that caused the architects of QM (Bohr, Dirac, Einstein, Schroedinger..etc…) so many sleepless nights.
- Do you think there is too much emphasis on technological or economic outcomes in funding criteria for academic research?
Up until a couple of years ago my answer would have been no (at least in the UK). Of late, however, Research Councils UK (RCUK) – which funds the majority of UK academic research via the seven research councils – has been under significant pressure from government to increase the (socio)economic impact of the research it funds. It now requires that all applicants for grants complete an impact statement which describes the impact of the project (including the potential of the work to “foster global economic performance, and specifically the economic competitiveness of the UK”) before the research is carried out. Similarly, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) recently put forward proposals that 25% of the assessment of academic research, across all disciplines, should be based on a measurement of socioeconomic impact [link to UCU response to the HEFCE proposals, pdf]. 17,000 academics signed a petition protesting against these proposals.
Putting aside the problem that RCUK and HEFCE apparently misunderstand the nature and fundamental purpose of academic research, there is the rather more pragmatic and vexed issue of just how to go about quantifying socioeconomic impact. The HEFCE proposals are markedly confused and ill-thought out on this point. This is hardly surprising given that a considerable number of studies by leading economists and social scientists – including a study commissioned by the Treasury a decade ago – have found that attempting to quantify the direct return on investment in fundamental research is essentially a fool’s game.
The increased emphasis on economic outcomes is part-and-parcel of the drive towards stronger commercialisation and marketisation of university research (however much the research and funding councils might protest otherwise). Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation, and Skills, has higher education as a central part of his brief and has stated repeatedly that he wants to see more economic impact from the research the government funds. This will be achieved by ensuring that universities become more responsive to the “needs” of the private sector.
Mandelson – unelected, twice disgraced, and architect of so much of what’s wrong with New Labour – apparently forgets the fundamental economic rationale for state support of academic research. Simply put, if the research is near-market then why shouldn’t the market fund it? Why should the taxpayer, through publicly-funded university research, subsidise the R&D programmes of, for example, Procter and Gamble or BAE Systems or Astra-Zeneca? Moreover, when academic research is driven by the bottom line of a multinational corporation, shockingly corrupt distortion of results and data can occur.
- Do you think the nano-prefix is a help or a hindrance?
The problem with the nano- prefix is that there isn’t an area of modern condensed matter/solid state physics or chemistry that can’t be badged as nanoscience. I get frustrated by reports that the “nanotechnology” market will be worth $1tn (or whatever the preferred figure currently is) in five/ten/fifteen years’ time because it’s never clear just what the nanotechnology label covers. Rather than nano being some wonderful cutting edge and radically different “paradigm”, many companies (e.g.Intel) could be said to have been doing nanotechnology for many decades. Similarly, a very large amount of surface science has simply been rebadged as nanoscience/nanotechnology (and I’m just as guilty of this as any other (nano)scientist!). What were called surface reconstructions fifteen years ago are now “nanowires” or “nanorods” or “nanodots”. I’ve read grant proposals where thirty year old surface science concepts involving island/cluster growth at surfaces have been “spun” as an innovative new way of forming nanoparticles.
This has led to quite a degree of ennui amongst scientists regarding the use of the nano prefix. In my opinion, it’s got to the point where the term “nano” is so broadly applied to research as to be almost meaningless. The definition of nano put forward by George Smith of the University of Oxford captures some of that ennui: “Nano: from the Greek meaning “to attract research funding” ”
- Tell us something you find amazing about nano.
I find it remarkable that we have advanced to the point where we can not only image and manipulate individual atoms but we can measure the force between two atoms as a function of their separation (where we can control that separation down to the picometre level). Although many scientists, including ourselves, do this experiment almost on a daily basis, it still astonishes me that it’s possible!Interviews comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.