The popular image of science is not about objects in front of us but about galaxies far, far away and seeming miracles—sometimes destructive, sometimes not—here on Earth. Please continue to look to the cosmos, but you don’t have to look so far away to be amazed. There is an entire microscopic world of awe-inspiring physics all around—and students need to be invited into that world from their earliest school days.
K-12 educators play a particularly important role in student development because they educate students in their formative years. In that role, they have a chance to expand students’ vision of the sciences. Young students, and society more broadly, need to be taught much more about the extraordinary parts of the universe that are right at their fingertips.
The scientific work described in the recent announcement of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics makes this abundantly clear. The new laureates, Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz, and Anne L’Huillier, demonstrated a way to create incredibly short pulses of light that can be used to measure extremely rapid processes involving the motion or liberation of electrons in materials. The laureates’ work has provided a glimpse into the ultrafast world of electron motion.
The motion of electrons in the atoms that comprise these materials occurs over attoseconds, tiny fractions of a single second. An attosecond is 0.000000000000000001 seconds. Roughly speaking, there are as many attoseconds in one second as there are seconds in our 13.8-billion-year-old universe.
The work of these scientists reminds us that there’s something truly incredible happening inside every object we look at, whether it’s a metal fork, a glass of water, or a spacetime-bending neutron star.
Pour yourself a glass of water and sit it on the table. Look at it closely.
Most of us would describe the water as placid and lifeless, understandably so given our senses. But we would only describe it this way because of perception limited by our biology. When I look at a glass of water, I imagine a nightclub packed with people shoulder to shoulder, bumping into each other, with sound waves rippling through them from the blaring music, the nightclub teeming with heat and energy. Instead of people, however, they are molecules and the atoms that comprise them.
The nightclub description of the water is more accurate than the placid one. For each fluid ounce in the glass of water, there are roughly 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules. In an 8-ounce glass, there are more water molecules than there are grains of sand on Earth. Each molecule is made of atoms, which have cores made of protons and neutrons around which electrons whiz. In the glass, these molecules collide, tumble, and spin, vibrate trillions of times per second, and the most energetic molecules near the surface shoot out into the air, never to return.
Now, that’s what I call an energy drink. How exciting—how world-transforming it would be—if there were more students entering into the physics field related to electrons, atoms, molecules, and their interactions with light, grabbing some of that energy and dispersing it in the world. Physics needs new voices—according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, industry need will grow substantially between 2022 and 2032. Add to that the abysmal statistics for how many people of color are represented in the field, and the need to reach more widely becomes clear.
In the recent film “Oppenheimer,” we see physicists feverishly working to create a bomb that creates an enormous explosion of heat, light, and death. There’s Walter White, the murderous chemist of television’s “Breaking Bad,” who takes Heisenberg—a historically important physicist—as his alias. In both cases, science is portrayed as an agent of noise and violence.
Here in the real world, it’s easy to see wonder in the universe via astrophysics and cosmology, where physicists’ painstaking work yields beautiful images and understanding of galactic clouds, black holes, and temperature maps of the early universe, among other awe-inspiring phenomena in the cosmos. What’s right next to you is harder to see.
What’s closest to each of us is my realm of physics: atomic, molecular, and optical (AMO) physics, and condensed-matter physics. Condensed-matter physics describes the macroscopic and microscopic properties of phases of matter—gases, liquids, and solids. AMO physics describes interactions between light and matter and the properties of light itself. Together, this physics tells us why diamonds glisten, how to create lasers, and how to build the vast transatlantic optical fibers that transmit the light pulses that fuel the global internet.
Quantum physics, the physics of the tiniest length scales, revolutionized AMO and condensed-matter physics and thus our understanding of nature. The dawn of quantum physics in the early 20th century was ushered in by some physicists depicted in “Oppenheimer,” like Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. Ever since, AMO and condensed-matter physicists have created increasingly simple systems. Today, we can even experiment with a single atom trapped by tweezers made of light.
Physicists are now moving toward more complex systems that are built from well-understood simple systems, such as trapped atoms or molecules, or materials made from a single atomic layer. Examples include: studying “ultracold” chemistry, where two isolated atoms form into a single molecule near absolute-zero temperature; building synthetic crystals by allowing atoms to hop around grids made of light; or building sophisticated materials by stacking single-atom thick layers of materials one on top of the other.
With these building blocks of matter at our disposal, there is so much more we can discover. Aspiring young scientists—and their teachers—need to know where we are and where we are going.
Take a look at that glass of water again. What do you see?