Six@Six lecture returns with ‘Wobbly Atoms’

Six@Six lecture series returns to the tri-state area with “Wobbly Atoms,” a demonstration about how atoms are constantly moving inside of all solid objects.

NKU associate physics professor Matthew Zacate will be the featured lecturer Wednesday, Feb. 6 at The Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center at 6 p.m.

Zacate will demonstrate effects of the ever-wobbling atom and the influences of atomic vibrations on cutting-edge technology.

“I want to talk about some of the things that you can see at a large, everyday scale that are a result of this movement; that is the wobbling of atoms at a sub-microscopic scale,” Zacate said. “It’s fun isn’t it? I’m going to give this presentation because I’ve seen demonstrations of what happens at the large scale and there are some fun effects.”

Zacate said it’s not all fun and games though, and there are real-world practical applications of these effects.

“I hope to make that connection as well and show some of the technological connections that could be beneficial effects,” he said.

The title “Wobbly Atoms” was inspired by work he did as a postdoc from 1997-99. He was working in a material science and engineering department and his group did computer simulations to predict properties of materials.

Zacate said one of the ways of visualizing these results, is to represent atoms in simulation and keep track of what they do with time.

“When you look at these simulations, it looks like you have this collection of balls that are just wobbling back and forth,” Zacate said. “Some of the other groups referred to us as the “Wobbly Atoms Group.”

People can explore properties of materials where the underlying cause of these effects is the fact that these atoms are actually moving in solid materials, according to Zacate.

“My hope is that people will be interested in the fundamental level of what’s going on with these materials,” he said.

Zacate is also interested in how atoms move in solid materials over long distances, so he has an ongoing research project.

“In solid materials, the atoms are wobbling back and forth, but it’s possible, when combinations are right, that in addition to their shaking back and forth in a small distance, they can jump a longer distance and get over the gap,” he said. “So, I’m interested in the combination of these successive jumps.”

This is the third year NKU Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement has sponsored the six-part lecture series and “Wobbly Atoms” is the fourth installment for the 2012-13 academic year. The series features five NKU faculty members and one Associated Press journalist.

Mark Neikirk, director of the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement, said the lectures fit into the public engagement mission of the university.

“We have a lot of knowledge on campus and it’s very useful in the classroom,” Neikirk said. “But, can we deliver that to the community in some way?”

Neikirk said he thinks of Six@Six in a way as “almost like a dinner conversation.”

“If you sit down with one of these professors and say, ‘What do you do?’ they begin to talk to you and you’d just be fascinated,” he said. “So, we are trying to deliver that in a lecture format.”

If people have curious minds, all these lectures bring something, according to Neikirk.

“It’s going to be interesting to sit in the audience of someone who studies [atoms] every day,” he said. “To inform me of what’s new, where the research is going, what do we know about atoms that we didn’t know before? You don’t have to be a science major to be curious about atoms.”

Tickets can be purchased at the event or online at Admission is $6. College and high school students get in free.