Physics Professor Says New Technology Will Lead to Unimaginable Outcomes
In a state long identified with the well-worn cliché about everything being bigger, the future of science is downright minuscule.
Dr. Terry Golding, a professor in the Department of Physics at Texas State University-San Marcos, builds things out of atoms. “Imagine a Lego set, with different colored and shaped building blocks; you can build almost anything,” he says. “We are able to build materials atom by atom to give us customized materials with special properties that we cannot get from naturally occurring sources.”
Materials at the nano-level, he says, interact with the environment in some way, either with light, magnetic fields or electrical fields, and their properties differ from those of the same materials at larger sizes. Products resulting from manipulating materials at the atomic level include flat-screen TVs and computer monitors as well as infrared sensors. And some manufacturers now use silver particles on bandages because, at a certain size, they fight bacterial infection.
A Heterofunctional Initiative Golding, the university’s Roy F. and Joann Cole Mitte Chair in Materials Science and Engineering, came to Texas State in 2006. He leads a heterofunctional materials initiative, which brings together fields such as chemistry, electrical engineering, physics and biology. “What we’d like to do here at Texas State is to integrate these various technologies into a single discipline,” he says. “The bridging of those disciplines is where we, as a nation, and we, in the sciences, have not yet done a good job.”
The initiative and Golding have received more than $3 million in grants, much of it from the U.S. military. It’s a partnership that goes back to Golding’s days as a doctoral student at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory. He worked with the U.S. Army as a research scientist, developing infrared materials to be used in equipment that helps soldiers see better at night. And technologies developed for the military frequently lead to consumer products, he points out.
Two Roles for Science Technology, Golding says, is the application of science for the benefit of mankind. But he sees technology as just one part of his job.
“There are two aspects of my work,” he says in his crisp British accent, holding up both his fists. “One is technology and one is basic science.” He moves his left fist forward. “Technology is where you can receive a lot of the funding because it’s directly relevant to, in our case, electro-optical devices, things such as lasers and solid-state light emitters.”
Moving his right fist forward, he continues. “The research side allows me to advance the understanding of what we call solid-state physics. It also allows me to train graduate and undergraduate students in the basic principles of physics and materials science. The students are then free to progress with that as they might, either in technology — if they wish to use it as an application to benefit mankind — or in the increased dissemination of knowledge for mankind. What the United States has to be good at is the creation and broadening of basic science.”
The New Industrial Revolution The future, Golding says, is nanotechnology — the study of very small sizes of matter. “What we need to be doing is a big push with nanotechnology,” he says. “Heterofunctional materials are derived from the coordination of various cross disciplines of nanotechnology. The result is the creation of technologies and devices with unprecedented capabilities. Multifunctional materials and devices are expected to be the backbone of the next major industrial revolution.”
Golding is fascinated by the as yet unknown possibilities of this new industrial revolution.
“No one predicted the silicon chip,” he says. “The silicon chip arose as a number of unique technologies merged at the same time. Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments invented the integrated circuit in 1958. I asked him once if he had realized the significance of his invention. He said he realized its importance, but didn’t know it would ever become so cheap to produce. So we had this big silicon revolution and then we had the software revolution and the Internet explosion, and it all was a result of the integrated circuit. But no one could have predicted it. It was a result of new technologies that came together at the same time.”
Can the same type of thing happen at Texas State? Of course, Golding says.
“The creation of new technology will lead to unimaginable outcomes,” he says. “We hope that Texas State can play a role in bringing these various disciplines together and looking at the science that naturally evolves as a result of integration of those technologies. Think of these as lily pads in a pond — physics, biology, chemistry — and the frogs are sitting in the middle of each pad. Instead of concentrating on the middle of each lily pad, we’re concentrating on joining those lily pads together so that we end up with something that’s new and has not been explored yet.”