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No Fear of Physics



Questions by Diana Mazzella
Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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Dr. Alan D. Bristow is assistant professor at West Virginia University in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. He teaches optics, semiconductor physics and electromagnetism. He also runs the internationally recognized Ultrafast Nanophotonics Group, researching how light interacts with matter to better understand quantum mechanics and the future of devices like LEDs and photovoltaic cells, among other things. Managing Editor Diana Mazzella sat down with Bristow to learn more about how physics is shaping our future.

I watch a lot of science fiction, and sometimes it seems like there are still so many unattainable technologies. Are scientists any closer to creating hologram personal assistants? And when can I buy one?

Science and technology are proceeding at an ever-faster rate. While we make huge leaps, some technologies will remain fiction. That is OK, too. Great sci-fi leads scientists to actual science breakthroughs. For example, we do have fantastic static holographic technology for security and advanced imaging applications. However, current applications require projection into a medium since light does not interact with itself. It is unlikely that you will generate a true free-standing hologram à la Princess Leia in “Star Wars” without carrying around a big chunk of material that makes photons interact with each other. It’s similar with projection technology; we only see an image when light hits a surface. One bright hope, pun intended, is to use scanning laser or super-LED technology on lightweight screens. Then we could fake a hologram using 19th-century technology.

I’d like to learn more about physics, but it seems daunting. I know it’s important to understand the world around me, but when I read things like “ultrafast nanophotonics,” I feel overwhelmed. Help!

At parties, upon hearing my profession, most people say “I hated physics at school,” “It was so hard” or “You must be so smart.” Physics is not hard per se, it’s just a way of thinking that is not taught well to most people. At those proverbial parties, people misunderstand that my physics skills are something that I’ve worked at over the years and that physics starts with questions, not knowledge. The knowledge comes from asking and then answering the questions. The new knowledge can then be used to ask new questions, and so forth. For ultrafast nanophotonics, you can ask “What is that?” Photons are the quantum mechanical particles of light. Electronics deals with the devices powered by and controlling electron particles. Through comparison, photonics is technology that controls or is controlled by light. So putting it all together ultrafast nanophotonics relates to nanotechnology for quickly controlling or being controlled by light. There you go. Not too hard after all.

It seems like in the last couple of years there’s been some big new invention everywhere you turn. What do you see now in your field that could bring big changes 10 or 20 years from now?

My field of optics is cross-cutting since humans overall are so dependent on sight. We use a wide range of aspects of light and light pulses. For example, we use light of various colors and intensities in imaging (with our own eyes) and in artificial eyes, such as cameras and medical scanners, microscopes and telescopes. And we use pulses of light to transmit information on and off CDs/DVDs and across oceans. One of the most remarkable technologies to emerge from the lab in the last few years is the ability to start controlling electrons in atoms, molecules and solids by the use of light. This requires a little quantum “magic,” but we can now kick electrons around the way we want. It is my hope that we will start to do this on large scales so that we might be able to exploit some of these phenomena in solar energy harvesting devices, chemical control schemes and even targeted biomedical treatments. This might take a little longer than 20 years, but we have a coherent goal in mind.

Dr. Bristow, who received his PhD from the University of Sheffield in 2004, has worked at academic and research institutes in Canada and the U.S., and is a member of the Optical Society of America.