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Volume 23 / No. 1 / 2012
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Cornell University
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At Cornell

To Discover a Dream Material

J. C. Séamus Davis, Physics Davis
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We watch electrons—a billion times smaller than atoms—in complicated materials to enable the unimaginable materials of the future.

Seeing Electron Waves

To see miniscule subatomic quantummechanical waves shooting around in a piece of material is beautiful. It’s like looking at Cayuga Lake on a breezy, blustery day: you see waves of large amplitude, lots of short waves, and long waves all interfering with each other, making a very complicated visual pattern. That’s what I see—the same kind of wave patterns, but now quantum mechanically—when I watch electrons in materials. I had to invent a scheme to be able to see this.

To develop the unimaginable materials of the future, we need to see how electrons move in complicated materials.

Complicated 21st-Century Materials

We have known for 50 or 60 years how to design instruments and materials, like silicon, gold, aluminum, and platinum, for use in our technology. But the new electronic materials being developed in the 21st century are immensely more complicated than a familiar material like silicon or gold.

It has been extremely challenging to understand the properties of new materials—how and why they work. One of the reasons is because scientists could not see directly what electrons are doing in these materials. But as soon as we developed a technique to visualize the action of the electrons, we saw that it’s extremely complicated. My lab develops tools, approaches, and instrumentation to tackle the complications—to visualize what’s called complex electronic structure, which describes how the electrons work in complicated 21st-century materials.

From Seeing Atoms to Seeing Electrons

The technique my lab developed is called spectroscopic imaging scanning tunneling microscopy. It works like an atomic-scale gramophone.

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