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Basic energy physicists aim for the middle

Usually physicists aim for extremes. They want to understand the smallest building blocks of matter, or the biggest cosmological bang. So it might seem strange, at first, that physicists supported by the US Department of Energy (DOE) are issuing a rallying cry to study the middle.

But according to members of the DOE’s Basic Energy Science Advisory Committee (BESAC), the ‘mesoscale’ is where it’s at. On Friday, at meeting in Bethesda, Maryland, they approved the final steps in the roll-out of a report that is supposed to galvanize physicists towards an understanding of the mesoscale — a regime of medium-scale lengths, energies and times that sits between the quantum world of atoms and the classical world in which we live. The report will be the culmination of an effort that began earlier this year with town halls throughout the United States, and which has gathered dozens of white papers.

Roughly speaking, the mesoscale is a regime between 100 nanometres and one micrometre, says John Sarrao, a condensed-matter physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and co-chair of the committee authoring the report. He cites the example of atomic defects. To a nano-scientist studying individual atoms, defects don’t exist and don’t matter. But for a mesoscale scientist seeking to study, say, the catalytic surface of a battery, defects must be understood.

In 2001, the DOE established the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which pushed physicists deep into the quantum world. Now, Sarrao says, they need to start working in the other direction, to understand the messy behaviour that emerges as atoms are stuck together in groups. “What we now need to do is come back up from the bottom,” he says.

The committee needs a few more weeks to polish its report. But at the BESAC meeting, Sarrao presented the six areas in which the mesoscale effort will be focused:

* Mastering defect mesostructure and its evolution
* Regulating coupled reactions and pathway-dependent chemical processes
* Optimizing transport and response properties by design and control of mesoscale structure
* Elucidating non-equilibrium and many-body physics of electrons
* Harnessing fluctuations, dynamics and degradation forcontrol of metastable mesoscale systems
* Directing assembly of hierarchical functional materials

The group hopes that the report will help the DOE organize funding in support of the mesoscale, but it will not call for any new facilities; mesoscale physicists would continue to take advantage of existing light sources.


  1. Report this comment

    Eugene Sittampalam said:

    May I humbly suggest that, irrespective of the scale at which any new and costly study here is undertaken, the smallest building blocks not only of matter but also of energy, and hence of all that we see as nature in and around us, should first be well recognized and understood, with their fundamental ramifications to the entire realm of physics from scales subatomic to cosmic. In this regard, one would find the best candidate to fit the bill for the smallest and yet (for empirical physics) the detectably ultimate quantum of matter, or mass-energy, to be the “per-cycle” quantum of any photon of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum.
    Planck’s law (E=hf) tells us:
    Energy = (an absolute constant)x(cycles/unit time),
    Energy/cycles = (absolute constant)/(unit time)
    In other words,
    Energy per cycle, say e, of any given photon is an absolute constant over time.
    Let us name this ultimate quantum of mass-energy (that comes a-ticking on our detectors, the rate of which ticks would characteristically identify the energy quantum), the RADIATON (note spelling!).

    Since energy is equivalent to, or transmutable as, mass, as per e = mc^2, it would be justified to state that radiatons are the fundamental building block particles of all matter and energy in the universe. Now, with the photons of the cosmic background radiation (CBR) known to fill every nook and cranny of the classical vacuum, including intergalactic space (and anywhere else), it would be further justifiable to say that ours is a universe filled with an aether, a single, voidless and seamless continuum in mass energy, where photons and neutrinos (basic energy particles)form the evaporated state of the mass-energy, vibrant at speed c; and electrons and nucleons (basic matter particles) form the condensed state of the mass-energy, vibrant at sub-c speeds.
    This is the ultimate perspective on the nature of thing, where we find the radiaton not only to constitute all that is matter and enegy but also to mediate all of the forces -from gravitational to electromagnetic and nuclear weak and strong – encountered in nature, by purely momentum (e/c) transfer at the various wavelengths. Sounds simplistic or incredible? Greatest discoveries indeed have been the simplest ones – in hindsight!
    Please see:
    Thank you all for your time here. Cheers!

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