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When 'back to basics' leads to breakthroughs in science

Column: Two examples of researchers finding amazing things by reconsidering the fundamentals.

James Kelleher/The Orange County Register

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Sometimes scientists need to take a fresh look at fundamentals to improve familiar materials. That means getting down to the basic molecular and atomic structures.

When a research group that calls itself "Liquid Stone" recently did that with cement, it found that what scientists thought they knew about the fundamental structure of that ubiquitous material just isn't so. One team member likens the implications of their new understanding of that structure to the boost biologists got when they discovered the basic structure of the DNA molecule.

Taking a similar fundamental look at the basic dynamics of magnetism, another research team has shown, for the first time, that a gas can be made to behave magnetically like a bar magnet. Team member Wolfgang Ketterle at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called it "an important discovery, which will advance our understanding of magnetism." That's important in a world where so much technology depends on the use of magnetic materials. Think computer hard drives.

In spelling out the details of this research in the Sept. 18 issue of Science, the MIT team says it appears to have answered the long standing question of whether or not a gas can become "ferromagnetic." That means it can act like solid materials whose crystal structure allows them to become magnetized. The answer is a qualified "yes."

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