Written by Amy Sullivan, Laser Mom
A few weeks ago, when the first news on the Higgs boson came out, a friend of mine sent me an email requesting that I write a blog entry explaining what it’s all about (that blog entry will be coming next week on Laser Mom). He said that understanding this part of physics was hard for him as an engineer since he did not have much background in modern physics. He also asked, “Why do we care about what gives us our mass?” His question made me think about research in general. Of course, as scientists and engineers, we all write proposals to get funding, and papers for scientific journals, and give conference talks, and spend quite a bit of time explaining why what we do is useful and will save the world and make us all rich someday. But really, why do we really do our research? I think that most us can honestly say (hopefully!) that we do it because it’s really cool. It’s fun. Why do we want to find out what gives us our mass? Because we can. We are curious and want to understand how things work and what new things we can accomplish.
I feel this way about the work in the past decade or so on writing into materials like glass and polymers using lasers. I have to wonder if the first scientists to write lines of index change in glass with femtosecond lasers were not thinking (at least a little bit), “This laser is so cool. I wonder what would happen if we focused it down into that piece of glass? Will the glass vaporize? Let’s try it!” (I believe Davis et al. were the first to publish on this topic.)
Perhaps they were much more organized and focused in their pursuits, but I have to admit that most of the interesting things I have accomplished in the lab have started out with, “I wonder what would happen if…”
My one year old daughter is a natural experimentalist. She loves to try out new things and do things just to see what happens. If I drop this, what will happen? What if I pull on this handle? What will happen if I pull myself off of this landing (Ow!)? It is amazing to see how quickly she learns new things just by exploring and trying everything that comes to mind.
We have all (hopefully) mastered the basics of gravity at this point, but our curiosity and desire to try out new things is what makes us good scientists. Shining a laser beam into a light sensitive polymer and watching what happens just fascinates me. There are so many interesting things going on, from basic light propagation in glass/plastic to chemical reactions in the material.
Then there are a the cool things you do when you put two beams together – using different colored laser beams of different shapes to activate different chemicals in a material and making super tiny little dots in the material. There were three papers in Science a few years ago (May 15 2009 issue) discussing different ways of combining optics and chemistry to create features that were smaller than the diffraction limit of the light used – cool! (By the way, you can get all three of those papers for free if you sign up on the Science website.)
Oh sure, there are lots of good practical applications of shining lasers into materials and making arbitrary waveguides to be used for optical circuits or being able to make even smaller features on our chips (smaller, faster, better…), and those are probably the things I will tell you if you ask me to give a talk on this research.
But why do I really work with lasers, shine them into materials, use them for microscopy? Why are the scientists at CERN looking for the Higgs Boson?
I think the Mars rover’s name covers it: Curiosity. Anyone who watched the video of Curiosity’s landing (YouTube – watch between minutes 5 and 6) can see the excitement and joy that scientists and engineers get when they have successfully completed a mission, discovered a new particle, built a new gadget or made measurements that no one before them has ever been able to do.
As scientists and engineers, we are a curious folk. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in funding, papers, etc. that we forget why we do what we do. But conferences are a great opportunity to explore and enjoy that curiosity. We can go to talks outside our field, talk to other scientists we have never met, and get outside our normal routine. This setting always re-energizes me and gives me lots of new ideas of things I would like to explore when I get back to the lab.
P.S. For those of you who also think shining lasers into glass and polymers is really cool, it looks like there will be at least a couple of talks on this topic at Frontiers in Optics this year: John Fourkas is talking about, “3D Optical Devices Fabricated Using Multiphoton Absorption Polymerization” and Roberto Osellame will be talking about, “Femtosecond Laser Written Optical Circuits for Quantum Computation and Simulation.” Should be fun!
Image Notes: An example of simulated data modeled for the CMS particle detector on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. Here, following a collision of two protons, a Higgs boson is produced which decays into two jets of hadrons and two electrons. The lines represent the possible paths of particles produced by the proton-proton collision in the detector while the energy these particles
deposit is shown in blue.
Posted: 8/14/2012 11:24:04 AM by
Amy Sullivan, Laser Mom
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