Water on Mars. So what?
NASA has just confirmed that there were lakes of salty liquid water on Mars billions of years ago, but magnetic activity from the sun affected Mars such that it began to loose its atmosphere. That is a great peace of a new from the scientific perspective but, does that affect our daily lives? Yes, for sure!
Human beings are a particular species on Earth. Since the dawns of time, humankind has being making questions on her place in the universe. Science has been working to answer those questions in the last few centuries, generating many new more questions for each answered one. Maybe that is the main reason why we scientists do research. But our experience has shown us that lots of technological advances for our society come out thanks to basic science. As Richard Feynman said once “Science is like sex, it may give some practical results, but that’s is not why we do it".
Last week, in the Physics Research Seminar course that I coordinate at Duke University, Dr. Sara Haravifard came to talk about her research in the field of the magnetic properties of crystals at very low temperatures and very high pressures. She creates specific types of crystals, to which she then applies those extreme conditions to understand how they behave, and how their structure is affected when different phases emerge, such as superconductivity.
Superconductivity is the lack of resistance to an electrical current that some materials have at very low temperature (lower than -100C approx., but some at lower than -200C). Although there are a couple of models that describe this phenomenon for some of the superconducting materials, it is not well understood how or why some others are superconductors. Understanding it, could help researchers to design superconductors at room temperature, for our use, giving our society a great tool for telecommunications, transport industry, and energy.
To investigate their properties, Dr. Haravifard needs to submit her samples to many different measurement, as X-rays or neutron scattering. Those measurements imply complex and big instruments, most of them huge facilities such as synchrotron accelerator or Spallation Neutron and Pressure Diffractometer (SNAP). These big facilities are huge instruments that most research centers or universities can not acquire or maintain. That is why there are just a few in the U.S. and in other countries around the world. The budgets to build and maintain them are big, although smaller than yearly budget of most soccer teams in Europe.
Sometimes it is difficult for newspapers to explain why we need a new synchrotron, for example, but without it we might not have that useful medicine you need, or that synthetic molecule to reduce cars pollution, or that light and resistant material that can be used in some prothesis.
It is good to have in mind that, when you use your laptop, or send a text massage to your loving ones, or watch the Super Bowl on cable TV, or have a medical diagnosis, you are having it due to people like Dr. Haravifard, doing basic research to understand Nature. Discoveries such as that of water on Mars, which a priori could seem not directly related to you, are present in your daily life.
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Physicist, working in quantum optics and nonlinear dynamics in optical systems. Loves to communicate science.