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For release: April 1, 2008

Paul Canfield, Condensed Matter Physics, 515-294-6270
Kerry Gibson, Public Affairs, 515-294-1405


Ames Laboratory physicist makes a case for pursuing new materials research

AMES, Iowa—What do Sophocles, the Rolling Stones, and Linus Pauling have in common and what do they have to do with fishing? Well, the unlikely trinity is quoted in a perspective piece on new materials in the March issue of Nature Physics by Paul Canfield, a senior physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory. In it, Canfield argues that more effort and funding needs to go toward the design, discovery and growth of materials that exhibit new or exotic properties.

The article, "Fishing the Fermi Sea," includes the following intro which gives a hint at the connection: "Sophocles had it right, the Rolling Stones made a friendly amendment and Linus Pauling detailed the conceptual mechanism for finding novel materials that will define and revolutionize the future."

"The design of new materials is an exercise in trying to improve the odds of finding something interesting," Canfield, who is also an Iowa State University Distinguished Professor, explains in the article. "This requires some ideas of how to improve the odds, and some method of checking whether you have succeeded or not."

He draws a parallel by turning to Pauling's reply when the Nobel-prize-winning chemist was asked how he came up with so many great ideas, "The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away." Canfield then compliments Pauling's statement with a line from the 1969 Rolling Stones hit which laments, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need."

"There can be a certain amount of luck involved in discovering new materials," Canfield says, pointing out that rare-earth neodymium-iron-boron magnets resulted from an attempt

to melt neodymium and iron in a boron-nitride crucible and some of the boron leached out to form the new compound.     

"Sadly, many classically trained physicists disdain such efforts and refer to them as "fishing trips," akin to throwing darts at the periodic table while blindfolded," he continues. "That couldn't be further from the truth and, as in the case of a real fisherman, you go where the "fish" are known to congregate and reap an abundant harvest."

Besides the title, the article is accompanied by two graphics that depict this type of educated, purposeful fishing. The first is a photo of an ancient mosaic (at left) on display at the Archaeological Museum at Sousse, Tunisia, that honors fishermen skilled at finding the "right place" to fish. The second (at right) is an illustration by Canfield's son Jacob, a high school senior, that depicts a scientist (that looks remarkably similar to the elder Canfield) fishing in a "sea" populated by superconductors, non-traditional and traditional Kondo systems, quasicrystals, Stoner systems and local-moment magnets.

"Searches for interesting compounds are obviously more successful when the definition of success is allowed to be as broad as possible," Canfield says. "This breadth is one of the reasons that groups engaged in such searches often have fairly wide research interests and even wider networks of collaborators."

This collaboration also helps advance the discovery process. "Sometimes realizing that a material is of great interest to somebody other than yourself is almost as important a step as growing the material in the first place," Canfield adds.

He closes the article with perhaps the simplest, yet most appropriate argument for actively seeking out new materials by quoting Sophocles from his play Oedipus Rex: "Seek and ye shall find. Unsought goes undetected."

Canfield wrote the article at the request of the editors of Nature Physics who approached him in late 2007 about writing a "thought piece" on new materials.  He has long been an advocate for new materials research and last year testified in Washington D.C., before the National Academy of Science's Materials Synthesis and Crystal Growth committee that has been charged to study and assess the status of new materials development and crystal growth in the United States.

"I've gotten positive feedback," Canfield said, "with many people stating that "˜this needed to be said.'  Some were also amazed at working Pauling and the Stones into the same sentence."

As for the illustrations, Canfield said the editors wanted something "eye catching." He first came across the photo of the fishermen mosaic from Tunisia and then turned to his son who has developed into a skilled illustrator.

"Jacob's a good illustrator and was willing to draw a physicist fishing from a boat," he said. "It seems that became me in a boat, though that wasn't part of the request.  One colleague said it was clearly a poor drawing since my back is never that straight."

Canfield said that he enjoyed preparing the piece and hopes it helps draw attention to the need for more newmaterials research.

"It's out of these types of broad, collaborative searches that the materials that will be used to address the challenges of the next century will be discovered," he said. "On the other hand, if research groups are discouraged from this activity, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and they will not discover anything."

Ames Laboratory is operated for the Department of Energy by Iowa State University. The Lab conducts research into various areas of national concern, including the synthesis and study of new materials, energy resources, high-speed computer design, and environmental cleanup and restoration.