A bit over 1 month ago, I told you about my adventure at the film studio of “de Universiteit Van Vlaanderen“. Today is the day the movie is officially released. You can find it at the website of de Universiteit Van Vlaanderen: Video. The video is in Dutch as this is a science-communication platform aimed at the local population, presenting the expertise available at our local universities.
In addition to this video, I was asked by Knack magazine to write a piece on the topic presented. As computational research is my central business I wrote a piece on the subject introducing the general public to the topic. The piece can be read here (in Dutch).
And of course, before I forget, this weekend there was also the half-yearly daylight saving exercise with our clocks.[and in Dutch]
Can you pitch your research in 3 minutes, this is the concept behind “wetenschap uitgedokterd/science figured out“. A challenge I accepted after the fun I had at the science-battle. If I can explain my work to a public of 6 to 12 year-olds, explaining it to adults should be possible as well. However, 3 minutes is very short (although some may consider this long in the current bitesize world), especially if you have to explain something far from day-to-day life and can not assume any scientific background.
Where to start? Capture the imagination: “Imagine a world where you are a god.”
Link back to the real world. “All modern-day high-tech toys are more and more influenced by the atomic scale details.” Over the last decade, I have seen the nano-scale progress slowly but steadily into the realm of real-life materials research. This almost invisible trend will have a huge impact on materials science in the coming decade, because more and more we will see empirical laws breaking down, and it will become harder and harder to fit trends of materials using a classical mindset, something which has worked marvelously for materials science during the last few centuries. Modern and future materials design (be it solar cells, batteries, CPU’s or even medicine) will have to rely on quantum mechanical intuition and hence quantum mechanical simulations. (Although there is still much denial in that regard.)
Is there a problem to be solved? Yes indeed: “We do not have quantum mechanical intuition by nature, and manipulating atoms is extremely hard in practice and for practical purposes.” Although popular science magazines every so often boast pictures of atomic scale manipulation of atoms and the quantum regime, this makes it far from easy and common inside and outside the university lab. It is amazing how hard these things tend to get (ask your local experimental materials research PhD) and the required blood, sweat and tears are generally not represented in the glory-parade of a scientific publication.
Can you solve this? Euhm…yes…at least to some extend. “Computational materials research can provide the quantum mechanical intuition we human beings lack, and gives us access to atomic scale manipulation of a material.” Although computational materials science is seen by experimentalists as theory, and by theoreticians as experiments, it is neither and both. Computational materials science combines the rigor and control of theory, with access to real-life systems of experiments. It, unfortunately also suffers the limitations of both: as the system is still idealized (but to much lesser extend than in theoretical work) and control is not absolute (you have to follow where the algorithms take you, just as an experimentalist has to follow where the reaction takes him/her). But, if these strengths and weaknesses are balanced wisely (requires quite a few years of experience) an expert will gain fundamental insights in experiments.
As a computational materials scientist, you build a real-life system, atom by atom, such that you know exactly where everything is located, and then calculate its properties based on the rules of quantum mechanics, for example. In this sense you have absolute control as in theory. This comes at a cost (conservation of misery 🙂 ); where nature itself makes sure the structure is the “correct one” in experiments, you have to find it yourself in computational work. So you generally end up calculating many possible structural combinations of your atoms to first find out which is the one most probable to represent nature.
So what am I actually doing? “I am using atomic scale quantum mechanical computations to investigate the materials my experimental colleagues are studying, going from oxides to defects in diamond.” I know this is vague, but unfortunately, the actual work is technical. Much effort goes into getting the calculations to run in the direction you want them to proceed (This is the experimental side of computational materials science.). The actual goal varies from project to project. Sometimes, we want to find out which material is most stable, and which material is most likely to diffuse into the other, while at other times we want to understand the electronic structure, to test if a defect is really luminescent, this to trace the source of the experimentally observed luminescence. Or if you want to make it more complex, even find out which elements would make diamond grow faster.
Starting from this, I succeeded in creating a 3-minute pitch of my research for Science Figured out. The pitch can be seen here (in Dutch, with English subtitles that can be switched on through the cogwheel in the bottom right corner).
Some external links:
This semester I had several teaching assignments. I was a TA for the course biophysics for the first bachelor biomedical sciences, supervised two 3rd bachelor students physics during their first steps in the realm of computational materials science, and finally, I was responsible for half the course Functional Molecular Modelling for the first Masters Biomedical students (Bioelectronics and Nanotechnology). In this course, I introduce the the students into the basic concepts of classical molecular modelling (quantum modelling is covered by Prof. Wilfried Langenaeker). It starts with a reiteration of some basic concepts from statistics and moves on to cover the canonical ensemble. Things get more interesting with the introduction into Monte-Carlo(MC) and Molecular Dynamics(MD), where I hope to teach the students the basics needed to perform their own MC and MD simulations. This also touches the heart of what this course should cover. If I hear a title like Functional Molecular Modelling, my thoughts move directly to practical applications, developing and implementing models, and performing simulations. This becomes a bit difficult as none of the students have any programming experience or skills.
Luckily there is excel. As the basic algorithms for MC and MD are actually quite simple, this office package can be (ab)used to allow the students to perform very simple simulations. This even without the use of macro’s or any advanced features. Because Excel can also plot the data present in the cells, you immediately see how properties of the simulated system vary during the simulation, and you get direct update of all graphs every time a simulation is run.
It seems I am not the only one who is using excel for MD simulations. In 1995, Fraser and Woodcock even published a paper detailing the use of excel for performing MD simulations on a system of 100 particles. Their MD is a bit more advanced than the setup I used as it made heavy use of macro’s and needed some features to speed things up as much as possible. With the x486 66MHz computers available at that time, the simulations took of the order of hours. Which was impressive, as they served as an example of how computational speed had improved over the years, and compared to the months of supercomputer resources one of the authors had needed 25 years earlier to perform the same thing for his PhD. Nowadays the same excel simulation should only take minutes, while an actual program in Fortran or C may even execute the same thing in a matter of seconds or less.
For the classes and exercises, I made use of a simple 3-atom toy-model with Lennard-Jones interactions. The resulting simulations remain clear allowing their use for educational purposes. In case of MC simulations, a nice added bonus is the fact that excel updates all its fields automatically when a cell is modified. As a result, all random numbers are regenerated and a new simulation can be performed by saving the excel-sheet or just modifying a not-used cell.
The simplicity of Newton’s equations of motion make it possible to perform simple MD simulations, and already for a three particle system, you can see how unstable the algorithm is. Implementation of the leap-frog algorithm isn’t much more complex and shows incredible the stability of this algorithm. In the plot of the total energy you can even see how the algorithm fights back to retain stability (the spikes may seem large, but the same setup with a straight forward implementation of Newton’s equation of motion quickly moves to energies of the order of 100).