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The progression of technological innovation is moving at a blistering pace in our lifetimes. The phone in your pocket has many hundreds of times the data processing speed of the first personal computers. However, when it comes to how fast the electronic devices can get, there are limitations we will reach, based on the physical structure of matter, and by most accounts, we are close.
By looking at how electronics evolve, it is safe to claim that the importance of surfaces and interfaces will keep growing substantially in the coming years. Soon, we will reach a level where we will be building devices that rely solely on physical and electronic properties of structures that have a thickness of just a few-atoms. Scientists will need to keep exploring novel features of surfaces and interfaces so that we will have the know-how to engineer the next generation of devices.
At UND, Dr. Nuri Oncel, an assistant professor in the department of Physics and Astrophysics, is taking up the challenge to discover just how small these devices can get. His group is particularly interested in chains of atoms and molecules. Imagine if you keep making an electronic device smaller and smaller, then eventually, you will reach a point that the active component of the device contains only a bunch of atoms and the only way to connect two such components is to use a wire that is made out of individual atoms or molecules. Oncel's research focuses on finding new materials for making such atomic/molecular chains and exploring their properties.
In order to study such systems his group employs a complex and a state of the art machine that incorporates a Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM), a Low Energy Electron Diffraction and an Auger Electron Spectrometer. Out of all three, STM is the most curious one. It is the one that actually make you see the atoms and molecules. It has one very sharp wire (STM'ers call it a tip) actually made out of tungsten. The tip is brought very close to the surface. The typical distance between tip and the surface is about a billionth of a meter. The interesting part, the tip and the sample never touch each other but thanks to Quantum Tunneling electrons can go from one to another. While the tip is carefully scanning the surface, the STM tracks changes in the number of electrons tunneling and records these changes as an image. As it turns out, this is closely related to the morphology of the surface. The researcher actually sees atoms not with light but with electrons.
That's the science, but Oncel asked how he could communicate the importance of such science to the public. Specifically, he wanted people to share the wonder he felt when he first saw these images. According to Oncel, "I remember how I was amazed when I first saw an STM image. The science and technology behind these images is jaw dropping." Oncel proposed an outreach program that would utilize the beauty of STM images, and engage local art students in some cutting-edge science.
Throughout the history, arts & science have always gone hand-in hand. Today, this historical connection between arts and science has been obscured, and students often lose sight of the impact of one on the other. We see science majors that show no interest in art and likewise we see art students that have no background in science. To Oncel, this seemed like a perfect time to come up with projects that would rejuvenate the relationship between the arts and science.
One of the most important aspects of collaboration across curricular areas is helping students gain an understanding of the interconnections and relationships between and across fields of study. Neither Visual Arts nor Science stands alone.
Working with Dr. Betsy Thaden, and Art Teacher at Red River High School, in Grand Forks, high school students were selected for a unique art project interpreting the computer-rendered imagery into art. According to Thaden, students were curious to learn about the very small parts of a typically unseen world and gain knowledge and understanding of what nano science was in general. "The images provided them a meaningful learning opportunity that linked art with a real world application. Students had to problem solve in order to create their piece of art work that communicated a representation of the nano image."
Students also had to write about their creations, which further demonstrate, to Thaden their ability to synthesize the information they gain in the learning process. "Titles and artist statements also written by the artists," says Thaden, "allowed them to think more deeply about what and how their ideas were being communicated to others."
It is clear the experience working with nano images gave these students insight into new possibilities and exposure to a different form of science that they may have not known about previously. "It opened avenues for further investigation and study within the sciences which could lead to job opportunities in the field in the future," says Thaden. "It also opened their eyes to how the arts align with and are connected to other curricular areas."
Oncel and Thaden's partnership in the Arts and Sciences is a model of creativity, and theory, and students, whether they attend the University of North Dakota or not, stand to gain.
Arts & Sciences
Dr. Betsy Thaden and Dr. Nuri Oncel pose with student generated works of art inspired by nanoscience.