September 24, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

Radhika, Kim and the quantum cat: Graphic nanoscience

Some months ago I wrote a blog post about a physics project I am involved in here at the University of Nottingham, led by Professor Philip Moriarty which we call for short: 3D printing with atoms.

I am engaged with the project as a social scientist interested in examining how such difficult research is being carried out and also how it is communicated.

As I said in the blog, Phil and I work with a script writer, Shey Hargreaves and an artist to create a graphic novel about the project and wider issues relating to science and society. For a variety of reasons, mainly bureaucracy, the artist on the project has changed between my last blog post and this one, and we are now collaborating with Charli Vince.

The script is now finished after various rounds of revision and the artist is beginning her work illustrating it. Shey, Phil and I discussed the script several times. In the process, we discovered how difficult it actually is to talk about real, rather than speculative, nanoscience in ways that not only Phil, the natural scientist, Brigitte, the social scientist, and Shey, the writer understood and to come up with ways of ‘making science public’ that would ‘work’. We struggled in particular with explanations of particle/wave duality and quantum tunnelling and the choice of an appropriate mathematical equation.

The script

The script is called ‘Open Day’. There are two central characters, Radhika, a PhD student in nanoscience, and Kim, an intruder who turns out to be curious about nanoscience, and in fact in all things science. There are also two peripheral characters, namely Tim, Radhika’s colleague, and a quantum cat that weaves the science and the personal narratives together throughout the script. I like that cat and I am really looking forward to the illustrations.

When reading the story I was excited to see how Shey has managed to bring in many things we had found out during our little ethnographic site visit about which I blogged before. For example, when walking through the labs, we had both noticed a scribble on a whiteboard – and it made it into the script:

A cramped room full of computers, wires, keyboards. A
whiteboard on the wall covered in calculations with ’You can
do it!’ scrawled across the bottom. In the centre, a huge
metal cylinder with tubes, levers and leads coming from it:
the scanning probe microscope.
Radhika puts her books and sandwich down on the desk. She
opens the sandwich and starts eating.

Radhika jumps, chokes, spits out crumbs. She turns to see
KIM standing by the microscope. Kim is skinny, short-haired,wearing jeans, parka, beanie. She’s holding a spanner.”

The spanner and the scanner

The spanner that Kim has brought into the lab becomes something like a protagonist itself. At various intervals, Kim basically says something like: ‘If you don’t tell me more about what science you are doing I’ll destroy your scanner with my spanner!’

The scanner is the precious scanning probe microscope that Radhika uses for her research. The stand-off between Radhika and Kim, between the spanner and the scanner, is however more than just a ploy to make Radhika talk about 3D printing with atoms. They also ‘confront’ other issues in their night together, such as sharing science with others, the scientific method (“Radhika: Bashing something till it works is an age-old part of the scientific method”), women in science, access to university education, motivation and frustration and much more.

We are trying to understand the
ways in which our universe works,
right down to the atomic level.
Even if we fail, we haven’t failed,
so long as we have been curious,
and looked for answers.”

The beauty of science

The script mainly centres around the dialogue between Radhika and Kim but it also contains quite poetic passages – here is one:

We heat the microscope to 150
degrees, then we cool it down and
it’s clean and ready to use.
Tim and Radhika move a tiny sample in a pair of tongs down
into the pressurised chamber. As they open the chamber, the
lab around them fills with stars and clouds of gas; the lab
becomes deep space.

We put the sample in this chamber –
inside which is a vacuum comparable
to deep space – where there aren’t
any other substances to interfere
with it.

Back to Radhika and Kim in the lab. Deep space disappears.”

Again, I can’t wait for the illustrations.

We hope to publish the graphic novel soon, and I’ll let you know when it’s out.

I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do! I also hope the few extracts in this blog post have whetted your appetite.

The image

If you wonder what the image we have chosen is…. It’s not some holes in brown fabric! What you are seeing are rows of atoms at the GaAs surface which the team are using in their experiments. GaAs is gallium arsenide, a compound semiconductor. However, I became a bit Kim-like and asked Phil a number of questions.

In various various emails Phil told me the following: “The surface comprises gallium and arsenic atoms – depending on the conditions under which we operate the STM [Scanning Tunnelling Microscope] we either see the gallium or the arsenic atoms. In other words, one type of atom can be invisible to the STM! It’s a great surface. If we put a positive voltage on the sample – and this could be as simple as just hooking up the positive terminal of a battery to the sample – then we have electrons flowing from the tip of the STM *into* the sample, and vice versa if we have a negative voltage. In GaAs the electrons that are accessible to STM largely reside on the As atoms, whereas the Ga atoms have a deficiency of electrons. (Kind of…!) This means that when electrons flow from the sample (i.e. when the tip is at a positive voltage with respect to the sample), they’re coming from the As atoms, but when electrons flow into the sample (i.e. the sample is positive with respect to the tip) they flow into the Ga atoms….It’d be much easier to explain with my hands!”

We hope to do a video related to our GaAs experiments at some time in the not-too-distant future for Sixty Symbols (Brady Haran willing), and involve Filipe Junqueira who produced our first atomic resolution images of GaAs(110)!

Posted in Science