Scientific research that works towards an immediate practical impact is a valuable route to useful innovations in many sectors. At the same time, fundamental research – driven instead by scientific curiosity – is also critical to enabling developments on a grand scale. It widens our knowledge of the Universe, driving the development of the most cutting-edge technologies to study it as well as providing the basis for future technological innovation. Fundamental research is the birthplace of new scientific ideas, underpinning our understanding of nature and of the precise phenomena occurring at the microscopic scale that dictate its laws.
Neutrons beams, with their ability to probe deep into matter and respond to near-undetectable differences between particles, provide many opportunities for unveiling the positions and motions of atoms, and thus the mysteries of the Universe. Neutrons are often used as the subjects themselves, revealing the behaviour of these critical components of every element.
Fundamental scientific research encompasses not only the identification and characterisation of the subatomic particles that make up our world, but also investigation into the organising principles behind the diverse phenomena we experience every day. In this way, scientific knowledge can move forward and then contribute to tackling societal challenges.
The big issue of the Big Bang
Around 15 billion years ago, when the Universe was created in an event called the ‘Big Bang’, the four known fundamental forces of the Universe came into action: electromagnetism, the weak and strong forces, and gravity. However, this event is still shrouded in much mystery – scientists are searching for a single theoretical description that explains how the Big Bang occurred. Neutrons are well suited to investigating all four forces – for example, they are electrically neutral particles with a spin 1/2 ħ, and so provide important results concerning electromagnetism. They also have mass, and thus can be used to visualise gravitational influence. Neutron science not only provides us with precise information on our current theories, but allows the vigorous and effective testing of new models. Read more.
Answering quantum questions
Quantum theory is one of the most successful theories of nature we have elucidated in the last century – it is the theoretical basis of modern physics that explains the nature and behaviour of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic level. A quantum system, depicted by the probability distribution of where a single particle is, is famously illustrated by the ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ analogy: a cat, locked in a box with a chemical poison, remains in an indeterminate alive-or-dead state until the box is opened. Neutrons can be used to study their own quantum properties, enhancing our understanding of how these abundant particles, found in every atom, themselves behave. Read more.
Unlocking the secrets of water
The giants of our solar system, Neptune and Uranus, have interiors composed primarily of water, but the exact arrangement of the substance is a mystery. By using neutrons to explore the behaviour of water whilst mimicking the extreme conditions in these distant worlds, scientists have identified some of the numerous varieties of ice forms that may form the cores of these planets. Expanding our knowledge of the properties of water under the extreme pressures such as those in space also improves our characterisation of the liquid in general in the more familiar forms that we experience every day here on Earth. Read more.
Unwinding the puzzle of skyrmions
Magnetism is a quantum phenomenon dictated by the quantum spins of atoms – this can lead to some very unusual and exciting properties in materials. A recently-discovered ‘swirl of spins’ named a ‘skyrmion’, has immense potential as the key to very high-density magnetic storage – as huge amounts of information can be stored in the arrangement of particles. However, the material is very difficult to investigate. Neutrons have the unique ability to detect the magnetic pattern formed as these skyrmions group together, which will be crucial to unlocking the potential of this fascinating phenomena. This includes the materials of the future, or quantum technologies that could transform our world by enabling supercomputing and more powerful MRI scanners. Read more.
Early Science: Water, ESS