A Moment of Science

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
–William Wordsworth (1802)

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, as seen by Voyager 2.

Phil Plait (the Bad Astronomer) wrote a lovely piece for Slate, telling the story of how he knew he wanted to become a scientist. Nicole Gugliucci (the Noisy Astronomer) prompted him to call for everyone’s stories: their Moments of Science, where science first began to connect for them. Alas, I don’t have a nickname like they do (the Fuzzy Astronomer? the Bowler-Hatted Astronomer?), but I do have my own Moment of Science stories.

In fact, I have two stories: one from my childhood, the second from adulthood. As the Al Kooper Wordsworth poem above states, the child is father of the man—meaning of course that who we were shapes who we are. There is another meaning relevant to me: the day we stop learning, we might as well go to our graves. Share your own stories in the comments, over at Bad Astronomy, or on Twitter using the hashtag #MomentOfScience .

The Child’s Story

Voyager 1 image of Saturn, taken in 1980.

The first real awareness I remember of science came when I was young, and the Voyager probes were exploring the outer Solar System. My brother had the Voyager 1 photo of Saturn (taken in 1980) on his wall from National Geographic, and I recall my father explaining what it represented. The very idea of worlds other than Earth is strange to a young child, so I don’t think I fully understood what he was saying at the time.

However, when I looked at the Voyager 2 images of Jupiter and its moons, I began to understand: these are different worlds, each with its own characteristics. Io and Europa and Jupiter, the giant planet itself—these imprinted themselves on my mind. I can still remember looking at the photos, flipping through the same few pages of National Geographic over and over again. Voyager 2 wasn’t the first or last probe to visit Jupiter, of course, but it was a brilliantly designed mission—and it captured my imagination. At that point in my life, I realized it was possible to be a scientist, and that studying science could provide beauty, wonder, and excitement. Anyone who thinks science is a dead, soulless field should try recapturing the moment of joy, the realization of whole other worlds to discover.

The Man’s Story

"Racetrack" of iron atoms deposited on a copper surface. The image was formed by measuring the electron's electric fields using a scanning tunneling electron microscope. [Credit: IBM]

“Racetrack” of iron atoms deposited on a copper surface. The image was formed by measuring the electron’s electric fields using a scanning tunneling electron microscope. [Credit: IBM]

Fast-forward nearly two decades (with the requisite montage sequence), when I was finishing college and looking for a graduate school in physics. I visited a number of possible places to do a Ph.D., and toured many labs. (Even though I wanted to do theory, and my research is all theoretical, they always include the labs on a tour, which is a very good idea.) One lab turned out to be a major center of research using scanning tunneling electron microscopes (STMs), which use electrons to map the distribution of electric charge on the surface of materials to extremely high resolution.

The professor who showed me the lab, Michael Crommie, was visibly excited about the work he was doing. He brought out a number of their recent micrographs, including a few similar to the one at right. As he explained, they were trying to capture the behavior of electrons on the surface of the material—and here he provided me with a second Moment of Science. He said, “Those ripples are electron waves.”

Of course I had seen electron micrographs before, and probably had even read about some of Crommie’s work. However, the conversation in that lab provided the swich from a vague “knowing” to a full understanding and awareness of the implications. When you learn quantum mechanics, you know electrons are wavelike as well as particle-like, but you’re always taught that the wave character is hidden. Normal detectors show particles, not waves—but in the STM image, the wave character stands out. We aren’t seeing individual electrons, but their collective behavior; in a material, the interactions merge the distinct particles into a fluid with its own properties, and that’s what we see here. Yes, that’s what we are seeing: something that no light will ever show us, our eyes cannot see, but is nevertheless real and exists—and can be studied. This is the stuff we’re made of.

This story stands out in my memory, but it’s one of many moments of science. I hope it won’t be the last. The child is father of the man. So be it when I shall grow old, or let me die.

Please Donate

DrMRFrancis on Twitter

%d bloggers like this: