Nature is an important inspiration for research in physics, particularly in nanoscience.
What do you like about the work that you do?
I get to use state of the art equipment at CRANN (Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanoscience) and there is a good deal of freedom in the experiments that I can choose to do. It is also great to be involved an area of research that is at the very beginning of technologies and inventions, which could be five, ten or twenty years away from mainstream use.
Some of your research involves biology – isn’t that strange for a physicist?
Not at all. Nature is an important inspiration for research in physics, particularly in nanoscience, where a lot of our work is focused on improvements in cutting-edge technology. One example is the gecko. Geckos can walk vertically and even upside down on smooth surfaces, even glass.
Our electron microscopes enable us to explore this amazing landscape, investigating features right down to the atomic level.
With powerful electron microscopes, such as the ones we use at CRANN, we can zoom in on the geckos’ feet and find out what gives them this amazing ability.
Tell us how they do it...
They have a system of tiny hairs that increase the surface area of the geckos toes. This allows the gecko to cling on to surfaces by making use of attractive forces that work on a quantum mechanical scale. Our electron microscopes enable us to explore this amazing landscape, investigating features right down to the atomic level.
And what happens then, once you have that information?
Apart from providing us with pretty pictures, research like this is important for guiding new technological advancements. Gecko toes have inspired research into new dry adhesives made from synthetic materials. It is only in recent years that we have developed the techniques to produce materials with such tiny structures that can have specialised functions.