• Question: What are those 'weird' forces, you have been talking about in your profile and what 'secrets' do you help to unravel about them?

    Asked by Chickenophile to Steven on 16 Jun 2015.
    • Photo: Steven Thomson

      Steven Thomson answered on 16 Jun 2015:

      The weird forces I talk about in my profile are the crazy quantum mechanical effects that happen to small particles at low, low temperatures. We have liquids that can run up the side of a glass, against gravity, and spill out onto the desk. Other liquids can go straight through the bottom of a solid glass, sneaking through tiny subatomic gaps.

      Some particles do crazy thing. Imagine running into a wall – you’d bounce off it and land on the floor, right? But electrons can be fired into microscopic ‘walls’ and they ‘quantum tunnel’ right through them. Sometimes electrons can be in more than one place at once, and sometimes they communicate with each other faster than the speed of light, which is really weird.

      I help figure out how and why these happen in magnetic materials, and how to use them. The main challenge in my field is something called superconductivity, which is when materials become perfect conductors of electricity, way better than normal metals. It only happens at really low temperatures, though. It’s got something to do with the quantum weirdness I mentioned above, all stemming from electromagnetic interactions, but no one really understands quite why it happens. If we figure out why, we can design better superconductors that work at higher temperatures, meaning more efficient energy generation and faster computers. (And even levitating trains, believe it or not!)