Category Archives: Physics

Threading a Nano-needle

One of the most exciting things about working in nanoscience is the incredible level of precision with which we can probe the world around us. This includes not just the physical world but also the biological world, which is a lot messier than most physicists are comfortable with!

There is currently intense interest in sequencing DNA via translocation through a nanopore, like threading a needle with the molecule that contains instructions for building life. Protein nanopores are the basis of new technology for DNA sequencing that made the news recently, costing only $1000 for full DNA sequencing with a palm-sized device from Oxford Nanopore. The protein nanopore is pictured in the image below, with DNA unspooling to pass through the pore.

But these nanopores can also be created in silicon, graphene or other thin materials. These solid state nanopores emulate the very small biological pores which can be found in the lipid bilayer around cells and their nuclei. Macroelectrodes in solution on either side of a solid state nanopore drive an ionic current in the carrier solution through the nanopore. As the DNA passes through the nanopore, it physically blocks the ionic current through the nanopore, allowing detection of translocation events. Additional electrodes can be added across the nanopore to enhance sensitivity to DNA. While research in this area is ongoing, it is thought that noise in the electrical signal through the nanopore can eventually be lowered—by applying coatings, slowing translocation speeds and improving fabrication techniques—to enable base pair sensitivity for DNA sequencing. Using solid state nanopores for sequencing could lead to more reliability and lower costs than protein sequencing, and is a major research area of the Drndić group at UPenn, the group I worked in for my PhD!

To me, nanopore sequencing is an amazing example of how direct electrical interaction with nanostructures can yield important information about not just the world around us, but our own place in it.

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Cassini’s Grand Finale

After nearly 20 years in space and a final series of dives through Saturn’s ring, the spacecraft Cassini is on its last descent. It will crash into the planet later today, ending an incredible scientific mission to an amazing place.

Cassini and its instruments helped investigate Saturn’s atmosphere, its rocky rings, its strange polar hexagon. It also expanded our knowledge of Saturn’s moons, from the geysers and hidden oceans of Enceladus to the rocks and lakes on the surface of Titan. Cassini’s Huygens probe, which landed on Titan, was the furthest space landing of anything humanity has built.

Originally launched in 1997, Cassini’s mission was supposed to end in 2008. But it received two major mission extensions, nearly doubling its lifetime. It has sent 635 gigabytes of data back, which mightn’t sound like a lot except that all of it was on 1997 era technology, through a billion kilometers of space.

The spacecraft is being crashed into Saturn because it’s running out of fuel for orbital maneuvers, and scientists don’t want to risk accidentally crashing it into one of Saturn’s moons which might contain life, and contaminating them. I feel personally invested in Cassini’s mission and final resting place, because my signature is on board! When I was growing up, one of my Girl Scout troop leaders was an astrophysicist working on the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer before the spacecraft was launched. She arranged for us to all come in and get to see some of the instruments, and in the end our signatures were all added to the 600,000 signatures on the disc of human culture that was included with the spacecraft. This disc, modeled on the Golden Record aboard Voyager, is a time capsule of human culture for other spacefaring civilizations to find. But while the Voyager discs are traveling beyond our solar system, Cassini will be meeting its end here, to become part of the planet it studied.

Cassini’s voyage has been such an inspiration, a feat of technical and scientific exploration which I, along with millions of others, have loved watching from here on Earth.

You can read much more about Cassini’s scientific discoveries here, and watch Cassini’s final descent today starting at 7AM EDT here, on the NASA livestream. Godspeed, Cassini.

Sound and Waves

When I hear my mother’s voice, it sounds different from my father’s voice, and different from a bird or a drum. Why are the sounds we hear so varied, and how do they travel to our ears?

soundwaves

Sound is created when something moves rapidly, and creates a wave in the air around it. Our vocal cords do this, as does the skin on a drum, pushing the wave out into the world. This wave is made up of bands of air: more pressure, less pressure, high and low, back and forth as long as the sound lasts. Sound can only travel through something whose pressure can be changed, like air and water. So if you’re floating in space: perfect quiet.

But have you ever noticed how sound changes as it echoes around a gym? That’s because sound waves change when they bounce off things. A musical note will sound differently in a glass room than in one lined with velvet cushions. This affects musical instruments too! And the size of an instrument influences the sound it makes, from the deep growl of the tuba to the light chirp of a flute. Generally, bigger instruments make deeper sounds, with fewer waves per second.

And sound is not just high or low. Of course, it’s also soft or loud. But more interesting are differences that lead to a new tone or feel. For example, a violin and a flute might play the same note at the same volume, but they still won’t sound the same. Waves have amazing abilities to send subtle differences within a sound. And luckily for us, our ears use delicate hairs to detect these waves as they move through the air. Nerves connect the hairs to our brain, connecting us to the full orchestra of sound.

Gravitational Waves Discovered by LIGO

The world is abuzz with news that gravitational waves have been detected for the first time. This is a huge leap forward for scientists’ understanding of gravity! For all that we experience gravity every day as we (mostly) stay grounded on the Earth, figuring out exactly how it works has been a challenge.

Gravity draws things together, but how ? One of the most brilliant discoveries of Albert Einstein was realizing that objects with mass actually warp spacetime itself. If we imagine space as an enormous sheet, throwing a light object like a tennis ball onto it would only pull the sheet down a little, whereas a bowling ball would pull the sheet down significantly more. Everything with mass distorts the sheet though, affecting other objects on the sheet and even massless things like light as they pass through.

Spacetime_curvature

Seeing that gravity affected light was actually the first major proof of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. During an eclipse in 1919, light from a cluster of stars was seen to distort from its normal pattern as it passed close to the temporarily obscured Sun. But another consequence of Einstein’s work was the idea that the speed of light is a maximum speed for any particle or force, including gravitation, however it’s propagated. This implies that gravitational interactions can only happen so fast, and that if a huge gravitational event were to take place emitting a lot of gravitational energy, that energy would have a maximum speed to move through the universe.

What kind of huge gravitational event? Well, the strongest gravitational interactions we have been able to observe take place around black holes, whose mass causes gravitational forces that overcome even basic quantum mechanical ones that prevent matter from piling up on itself. So black holes are supermassive point objects, singularities with exceptionally strong gravity. And if two of them were to come together, their movement might create gravitational waves in spacetime itself that could be strong enough for us to detect.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has been looking for gravitational waves using light as a ruler to measure whether spacetime is being warped. LIGO compares the length of two 2.5 mile long tunnels, set at right angles to each other, which would warp in alternation if a gravitational wave were to pass through them. The precision needed to see even very strong gravitational waves is tremendous, as we know from the fact that we don’t just observe our living rooms getting bigger and smaller in response to cosmic events. LIGO has been searching for gravitational waves since 1992, and improving its precision since then. Finally this week, they announced a signal!

LIGO_measurement_of_gravitational_waves

The gravitational waves detected come from two black holes merging, a billion light years from our planet. These black holes were enormous, 36 and 29 times the mass of our Sun. They merged into a black hole 62 times the mass of our Sun, converting three solar masses into energy as gravitational waves. It is these waves that the LIGO researchers managed to detect, corroborating their results at two separate facilities in Louisiana and Washington. The difference in lengths of the LIGO tunnels due to the gravitational waves was less than a millionth of the size of an atom, an astounding physical feat, and yet the LIGO collaboration is confident in its measurements to 99.9999%.

Validating a prediction made over a hundred years ago about the way mass warps spacetime is impressive enough, especially considering that gravity is still the least well understood of the four fundamental forces. But it’s also a beautiful new way to look at the stars, and at the massive universe beyond our planetary doorstep.

Color and the Size of Light

What is color, and what does it mean for an object to have a specific color? Well, color comes from the fact that light can have different sizes, the way objects reflect that light, and the way our eyes can see it.

Light is made up of these tiny packets of energy, photons, which travel as waves that can move through air or space. And there’s a distance between the peaks of the waves, the same way there would be for waves in water, which is the size of the light. Light can have a whole range of different sizes, so the microwaves that you use to cook food or the radio waves that carry sound through the air are both different sizes of light. But there’s a special range of light, the visible range, which contains the sizes of light that our eyes can detect.

wavelength_size

So in the visible range, we have shorter lengths of light, which our eyes see as more blue, and longer lengths of light, which our eyes see as more red. In between, you have the full rainbow, which has all the colors we can see. The sun shines light on us with the whole range of sizes, but different objects will reflect different sizes or colors back at us. So an orange is absorbing most visible light but reflecting orange light, and then our eye detects that light and our brain tells us it’s orange.

But we need special cells in our eyes to detect color. Most people have three kinds of color-detecting cells, called cones, that pick up blue, green, or yellow light. From these three colors, our brain puts together the rest of the rainbow, like an artist does when mixing paint. People who have fewer or more kinds of cones will perceive color differently, maybe being color-blind or seeing even more colors than average, even though the light itself is the same!

If you want to know more, we have some nice posts in the archives about visible light and why the sky is blue.

Innovative Technologies

I work in nanoscience, and a lot of new materials and devices are developed where people ask, what is going to be the application of this? Can this displace an established technology (like silicon computer chips) or create a new market? And I was recently reminded of a great quote in response:

The principal applications of any sufficiently new and innovative technology always have been—and will continue to be—applications created by that technology.

That was said by Herbert Kroemer in his Nobel lecture, and it bears thinking about in many contexts both within science and in the broader world. When you’re doing something new, it may not fit neatly into the established hierarchies of technology, science, or industry. That can be good, and in fact it can be groundbreaking, like a present you didn’t know you wanted! Of course, it’s still important to think about how your work fits into the broader picture as it already is, but I think it’s always good to get a reminder to check your premises, that innovation can create its own new niches.

Sweat The Small Stuff

Let’s talk about science! Literally, here I am talking about science, the quantum world, scientists, and answering audience questions from a kindly bunch at Pint of Science this May in Dublin. There is also a bit of a surprise in the middle.