Peering Into matter with an electron eye

Dr. Khalid Siddiqui

Seeing is believing! The ability to see matter in its finest detail has contributed immensely to our understanding of the universe. But, what specifically does this ability to see grant us? Well, it grants us the choice to control!

Picture yourself as a coach of a football team watching the game in which your team is losing. Suddenly, you notice some patterns of play that are hurting the team. You as the coach and an observer can do something about it. You could change the game tactics or substitute players that are perhaps underperforming to help your team win. In other words, you can apply control to steer the system, i.e. your team to the desired outcome: to victory.

This is in essence what I do in my line of research, except that I don't get to be a coach of a football team, the Lab won’t pay for me to that! But instead I do my other favourite thing, which is to watch the motion of atoms inside materials for new scientific insights and innovative applications. But, atoms as we know are microscopic and invisible to the naked eye and their collective motions in form of vibrations occurs on timescales faster than a billionth of sec!

How do I then observe these motions in real time which will allow us to control them? Well, I do that with an eye of an electron! Using advanced electron microscope developed in Berkeley Lab that’s driven by accelerators that are able to speed the electrons up close to the speed of light, in a so-called scattering experiment.

In these experiments, the electrons hit our system of interest and like a clever pickpocket run away stealing their information, which they hand over to us to use and study.

I use this tool to look into quantum materials- which are new class of materials with fascinating properties such as zero-loss transport of electricity and by way of control, I inject energy into these systems in form of laser light, to drive them out of their comfort zones. It turns out doing that reveals hidden forms with new properties that cannot be accessed by any other means and they emerge with such astonishing speeds, but also are surprisingly stable and therefore, have a huge potential for next-generation technology such as ultrafast electronics and robust memory devices, and their discovery has become a central goal for condensed matter physics.

My research is helping to pave the way for these novel form of matter to be studied so that new frontiers of solid-state physics can be explored and new technological solutions can be found to solve global scientific problems. And we are doing that all by using the eye of an electron.