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Mark Bowick on Soft Matter and Education Part 1

Wed, August 28, 2013

In part one of this two-part interview, Mark Bowick, Professor in the Physics Department at Syracuse University, discusses his presentation at the 2013 Annual Conference in Brazil as well as his suggestion for getting young scientists more excited by the puzzles in Soft Matter.

VK: What were some of the groundbreaking ideas you saw at the 2013 ICAM Annual Conference in Brazil?

MB: There was a ton of stuff: new phases of strongly interacting electron system, a wonderful area that Piers works on, non-equilibrium systems, and high temperature superconductivity. There was one rather interesting idea: Suppose you take a transition from a metal (something that conducts electricity) to an insulator (something that doesn’t conduct electricity). The problem with understanding these electron systems is when you have a high density of strongly interacting electrons. That’s a big problem for theory. There’s a direction coming from string theory, relating gravitational theories to strongly interacting condensed matter systems. This is very weird but perhaps promising.

VK: Can you tell us a bit about your Soft Matter presentation at the Annual Conference?

MB: It was about vesicles. You can think of them as microscopic bags that you can use to hold materials. I was interested in the shape of these vesicles. Since they’re very thin, we can simplify them essentially as a two dimensional surface structure.

VK: Were you interested in a particular shape?

MB: Yes. The vesicles I was interested in are 2D liquid crystals. These crystals are ordered. This just means that there are “preferred” orientations given the energy of the system. The emergent phase is this liquid crystalline shell. But they can easily bend and change their shape. What we showed is that, in some limit, when it is easier to bend them than it is to change how they’re ordered, they make a rather unusual shape— a tetrahedron.

VK: So the liquid forms into a tetrahedron?

MB: That’s right, they facet like a gemstone with flat faces, sharp ridges, and sharp corners. The surprising aspect is when they’re floppy they become sharp. The reason why that is this is the lowest order the system can assume. Topologically it has to be round, but energetically it has to be flat. The solution is a gemstone from a liquid.

VK: What other areas in the sciences can this research influence?

MB: We can expand it to understand morphogenesis in biological systems. For example, how do we get the developmental shapes that we do? Another area is designing chunks of matter that replace atoms. Atoms are used to make molecules and molecules make bulk materials—simple enough. But, you can redo chemistry but at a bigger scale.

VK: You mean by manufacturing the building blocks? Would it just be about replacing the atoms?

MB: Not only the atoms. You can have lots of atoms and then you have to figure out what replaces the bond. For atoms a bond is made from two electrons. You want to understand what bonds you can make and the shape of the molecules. This is a process of design. Or, you can just throw these “superatoms” together and see what emerges—what kinds of materials can we make? This is the exciting field of “Supermolecular Chemistry”. This gives you a chance to design from the bottom-up.

At this point in the interview, a parallel question pops up: If we were to look at education as a bulk material product, how would we go about taking the bottom-up approach to designing it? Applying Dr. Bowick’s discussion about “superatoms”, one option is that we design what happens at each level of education in order to get a specified material product. This would be parallel to designing the chunks that replace atoms, then the bonds, and then the molecules. Or, we can design the initial components and then see what emerges. This would be analogous to throwing the superatoms together. Either approach involves something interesting: the emergence that comes after the initial components are set. I wanted to talk more about these initial components when it comes to education—specifically, in relation to designing the emergent educator.

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