Tuesday, August 30, 2016

PWN E091: Brookhaven National Labs Summer Sundays Week #2- Nanomaterials, The Science of the Very Small, and the Science of Self-Assembly.

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So this is the first in a three part series about my excursion to Brookhaven National Labs to tour their facilities for 4 "Summer Sundays" Sessions that took place during the month of July. So, one thing that I found out last year is that you are not allowed to go onto the BNL campus without authorization. I stopped by and asked if I could drive around, and I got a very stiff "no" from the security guard. I did not realize the gravity, no pun intended, of this facility.

BNL is a very serious science research facility. They do classified level research, have a particle accelerator, and at any given time are trying to be hacked by someone. Security is paramount, and so for obvious reasons they don't want me driving around in my minivan to see the sights. However, for 4 glorious Sundays a year, you can visit and tour parts of this magical place and see what the scientists are up to, in very broad strokes. The first weekend is called "Family Fun" which I was unable to attend. The second week, which will be our focus today, was called "Exploring the Ultra Small", the science of nanomaterials. This particular weekend was different for me, because I attended it with adults, which I did not do for weeks #3 and 4. Because I was with adults, I attended a talk which gave broad strokes about nanomaterials.

So, upon entering BNL, you realize just how huge it is. It's a 5200 acre campus. Just huge. After the security check, you get your visitors stickers, and proceed through to the visiting center, where they have some very nice demos setup. They also have a cafeteria, gift shop, and a table full of my favorites, freebees. I got several postcards, stickers, and a ruler, since the topic of the week was measuring nanomaterials.

I didn't get very much time to explore this, since the talk was starting shortly and we had to hustle over to another building. Upon entering the room where the talk was given, I was nostalgically thrown back into my college days. It was essentially a college lecture room, complete with an overhead projector(!). The guy giving the talk was the director of the Nanoscience division. I hadn't been to a scientific lecture in some time, so I was ready to roll. However, I was mildly disappointed because just when I thought we were going to get into the meat of the talk, it was over. It was at this point that I realized that the bulk of the attendees of this were high-school level teens. They were gripped with his introduction, but that's probably all they were going to be able to handle.

That aside, he touched on some very interesting topics, such as what nanomaterials are. They exist on scales which are 10^-9 meters (check out Episode 005 of this podcast if you're interested in units of measure) The really cool thing to take from this section of the talk is that apparently what they're able to do is form nanomaterials "naturally", i.e. not using a small pointer to move around atoms. Take the sand on the beach for instance. As the waves wash over the sand, it forms specific shapes and there's nothing that we as humans have to do in order to get the sand to look that way. So, by the same token, is it possible to have a process like this which will assemble molecules in a desirable way that can be useful to humans and scientists for research? Apparently the answer is yes, but that's where the talk ended. This process is known as "self-assembly" and is evidently a cutting edge technology right now. I would love to learn more about this, and I think a lot from this talk will wind up as words of the day on PWN Physics 365.

From there we headed back to the visitors center where a Magic Show was starting. We headed in, and they did some really cool magic tricks, which were essentially science experiments which were disguised as magic tricks. The lady doing the magic was very engaged with the high school students, and the students impressively knew the answers to most of the tricks. One that stood out to me was that the lady had a balloon, allegedly empty but when she placed it on top of a tube, it self inflated and then popped. As the kids guessed, the balloon contained baking soda and the tube vinegar, which reacted causing the production of gas which "magically" inflated the balloon. Obviously, I was not the intended audience for this show, but it was fairly interesting nevertheless.

One last thing. I couldn't help but notice how many parents with Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds had brought their children to this event, and how few "American" looking folks had turned out. I don't mean this as a slight towards them, but rather a compliment. It's very easy to see where these cultures place their value. They place it in education and learning, and when they take their children out, they don't take them to be entertained, but rather state-of-the-art science facilities which expose their kids to the latest scientific discoveries. As America continues to place it's value on being entertained rather than contributing, it's no wonder we're falling by the wayside to countries whose cultures have a ravenous desire to learn and discover. I certainly will be following in their footsteps. Their children were very bright, and very inquisitive and curious, and took every opportunity to interact with demos, ask questions, and answer questions when asked. You can tell they have very bright futures ahead of them.

I left feeling very inspired. The atmosphere at BNL makes you want to learn, and to work towards discovering new features of our universe. It also makes you never want to leave, which makes it not so easy when we had to take off. There was a tour of the nano-material facility which we missed due to time, but something that I will certainly check out next year.

Lastly, if you're still new to physics, and are interested in nanomaterials, I encourage you to start by checking out my FREE Units of Measure app from the iTunes store. It gives you a great review on all SI units, and if you're interested in learning prefixes like nano, giga, micro, and pico, check out the free powers of ten review app. Flash card review of critical knowledge to empower you on your journey through science.