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Which type of large-scale facility has contributed the most to condensed-matter physics?

By Hamish Johnston

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Earlier this week my colleague James Dacey was filming in Grenoble, which is home to two major facilities used by condensed-matter physicists: the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL). His trip has inspired this week’s poll question, which pits coherent photons against thermal neutrons.

The ESRF and other synchrotron facilities produce coherent beams of synchrotron radiation. These have proven particularly useful to physicists studying soft and biological materials as well as the electronic, atomic and molecular structures of hard materials such as crystals. Although I don’t think that any Nobel prizes have been awarded for condensed-matter physics done at a synchrotron, the 2009 chemistry Nobel was shared by Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who used synchrotron radiation to work out the structure of ribosomes.

The ILL is one of several nuclear reactors worldwide that are dedicated to producing beams of thermal neutrons. These have a wavelength that’s on a par with the spacing of atoms in solid materials, which makes them an ideal probe of the bulk properties of matter. The ILL and other neutron facilities have provided important insights into the structural, dynamical and magnetic properties of materials. Indeed, neutron-scattering techniques have been so successful in condensed-matter physics that Clifford Schull and Bertram Brockhouse shared the 1994 Nobel Prize for Physics for their pioneering work in the field.

So after those two elevator pitches, this week’s Facebook poll is:

Which type of large-scale facility has contributed the most to condensed-matter physics?

Synchrotron sources, for example the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility

Neutron sources, for example the Institut Laue-Langevin

Other (please leave a comment)

In last week’s poll we asked “In the coming decade, which industry sector will benefit the most from physics research?”.

By far the winner is “computing and communications”, with a whopping 62% of the vote. My favourite suggestion from our readers was “entertainment”, by Gemma Elizabeth who described it as “smart arse”. When you consider the billions spent on computer games and CGI effects, I’d say we should have included it in our short list.

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  1. Julio Herrera

    Concerning your comment on entertainment; the investment in Spiderman 2, in which Doc Ock controls fusion power, was greater than that year’s American fusion research budget. Then, of course Spiderman 2 recovered the investment :-)

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