Monday, April 21, 2014

Why do scientists do research that will likely never come to market or be competitive with existing technologies?

That is a very good question. There are a variety of answers that are all true in different circumstances.

  • Although the material or concept being studied does not make much sense now, we don't know what might happen in the future. While this isn't always the case (sometimes, physics and chemistry make it apparent (sometimes taking some work) that studying something for a given application will be fruitless), it is true that you often don't know. For example, liquid crystals (what is in LCD displays) were discovered in 1888. No major applications were even thought of until between 1950 and 1960 and they weren't commercialized until 1968 [1]. Now, these displays are found almost everywhere. Similarly quantum physics was seemingly an academic extraction until it became important for understanding semiconductors and industries developed that needed it. Einstein's theory of relativity had no practical applications that could be commercialized until the space age, satellites, and wireless communication made it necessary. Few would argue now that these were unimportant or fruitless studies.
  • Sometimes concepts are learned about one system that can be applied to other, more useful systems in the future that may or may not yet have been discovered. Also, sometimes these "model" systems are investigated because they are less expensive or easier to make. Sometimes it is easier to learn something about one system and apply it to another than to make samples and study the other system, straight off. You don't always know which technologies will succeed and which ones will fall by the wayside.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Dance your science!?

Research isn't complete until it’s written down and has been shared to others - communicating your research is an ethical duty! Normally, scientists share their results to other scientists by publication in peer-reviewed journals or by presenting their results on scientific conferences. The peer-reviewing offers a quality check of your research as the peer-reviewers are supposed to be other researchers within the field that have the knowledge to understand your work exactly.

Another very important part is communicating what happens in science to the public. Science has a big impact on humanity and for people to be able to understand what long lasting effects it will have on society and to decide in what direction they want science to go, they need to understand the surrounding issues. Here, journalists reporting scientific news play an important role, but also universities around the world that need to do a good job at training future scientists to communicate and become storytellers!

This is a challenging task as the scientific language barriers to overcome may be huge. I often find myself stuck with awkward terminology when describing my research to friends and family. Something that actually is pretty easy to understand and very interesting, turns into something boring and complicated just because I’m using the wrong words.

An alternative way to make your research interesting for the public could perhaps be by a dance (!). This, not too serious but yet very entertaining, approach was introduced by the biologist John Bohannon who invented the Science Magazine’s Dance your PhD competition. In this competition PhD students present their research topics by a dance performance. Here are two of my favorite productions which also are material science related!

A super-alloy is born: The romantic revolution of Lightness & Strength from Peter Liddicoat on Vimeo.

Microstructure-Property relationships in Ti2448 components produced by Selective Laser Melting: A Love Story from Joel Miller on Vimeo.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Kitchen Chemistry you can do at Home (ask your parents first)

You can do some pretty cool science experiments at home with your parent/guardian's permission. Watch this video to learn how!
What do you observe? A good scientist must record his or her observations.