Curiosity

A few weeks ago, when the first news on the Higgs boson came out, a friend of mine sent me an email requesting that I write a blog entry explaining what it’s all about (that blog entry will be coming next week on Laser Mom). He said that understanding this part of physics was hard for him as an engineer since he did not have much background in modern physics. He also asked,  “Why do we care about what gives us our mass?”

His question made me think about research in general. Of course, as scientists and engineers, we all write proposals to get funding, and papers for scientific journals, and give conference talks, and spend quite a bit of time explaining why what we do is useful and will save the world and make us all rich someday. But really, why do we really do our research? I think that most us can honestly say (hopefully!) that we do it because it’s really cool. It’s fun. Why do we want to find out what gives us our mass? Because we can. We are curious and want to understand how things work and what new things we can accomplish.

One of the things that I have done in the recent past for research is to shine laser beams into glass or polymers (i.e. plastic) and see what happens. It turns out you can use the energy in the laser beam to change the properties of the materials for practical engineering reasons – creating small feature sizes so that we can have better, faster, smaller computers and to write optical waveguides so that we can send information (internet) easier and faster from place to place. But I did not really study this just for practical reasons – it’s just fun! (The practical reasons are, of course, important to get funding to get paid to do what I love.)

I have to wonder if the first scientists to write optical wires in glass with high power lasers were not thinking (at least a little bit), “This laser is so cool. I wonder what would happen if we focused it down into that piece of glass? Will the glass vaporize? Let’s try it!” (I believe Davis et al. were the first to publish on this topic.)

Perhaps they were much more organized and focused in their pursuits, but I have to admit that most of the interesting things I have accomplished in the lab have started out with, “I wonder what would happen if…”

My one year old daughter is a natural experimentalist. She loves to try out new things and do things just to see what happens. If I drop this, what will happen? What if I pull on this handle? What will happen if I pull myself off of this landing (Ow!)? It is amazing to see how quickly she learns new things just by exploring and trying everything that comes to mind.

We have all (hopefully) mastered the basics of gravity at this point, but our curiosity and desire to try out new things is what makes us good scientists. Shining a laser beam into a light sensitive polymer and watching what happens just fascinates me. There are so many interesting things going on, from basic light propagation in glass/plastic to chemical reactions in the material.

Then there are a the cool things you do when you put two laser beams together – using different colored laser beams of different shapes to activate different chemicals in a material and making super tiny little dots in the material. There were three papers in Science a few years ago (May 15 2009 issue) discussing different ways of combining optics and chemistry to create features that were smaller than anything you could do before with these lasers (By the way, you can get all three of those papers for free if you sign up on the Science website.)

Oh sure, there are lots of good practical applications of shining lasers into materials (faster internet and computers?) and those are probably the things I will tell you if you ask me to give a talk on this research and certainly what I will tell you if I need to write a grant proposal.

But why do I really work with lasers, shine them into materials, use them for microscopy? Why are the scientists at CERN looking for the Higgs Boson?

I think the Mars rover’s name covers it: Curiosity.  Anyone who watched the video of Curiosity’s landing (YouTube – watch between minutes 5 and 6) can see the excitement and joy that scientists and engineers get when they have successfully completed a mission, discovered a new particle, built a new gadget or made measurements that no one before them has ever been able to do.

As scientists and engineers, we are a curious folk. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in funding, papers, etc. that we forget why we do what we do. That’s one of the reasons I am excited to go to an optics conference this fall. Conferences are a great opportunity to explore and enjoy that curiosity. We can go to talks outside our field, talk to other scientists we have never met, and get outside our normal routine. This setting always re-energizes me and gives me lots of new ideas of things I would like to explore when I get back to the lab.

Of course, with an infant at home, I do not really need to go anywhere. Babies are natural experimentalists and seeing her intense concentration in trying something new and her joy at discovering new things reminds me every day why science is so cool. We are all born curious, and hopefully we keep that curiosity as we grow older though we each tend to focus it in different directions.