A molecule is a tiny thing – a grouping of two or more atoms. It can be easier to handle than an atom. A two-atom molecule for example, is like a dumbbell with one end charged positive, the other negative, so can be choreographed using electricity. Neighbouring molecules interact with each other, attracting or repelling depending on how the dumbbells align.
I recently had the great pleasure of participating in the launch of a new programme in Durham. I am the project artist. The 5 year programme created by around 35 scientists from Imperial, Durham and Oxford universities will find ways to create molecules that are far colder than space and then go on to study the interactions between small numbers of them. Two molecules separated by a thousand times their size, appear to each other as distant specks, yet still interact strongly enough for the scientists to measure. After interacting their actions can remain correlated even though they may be far apart.
The cooling and manipulation of molecules is relatively new. For some decades we have been perfecting ways to cool atoms with carefully tuned light. A molecule is a more complex thing and many more sources of light are required and a wider variety of techniques needed to achieve the super low temperatures. Only at such low temperatures can we be relatively sure about what we are observing, anything warmer and the molecule is dancing in a host of different and unpredictable ways.
To do this work, the team is assembled from specialists from around the world: the US and UK, South Korea, Serbia, Lithuania, Germany….. I am proud and delighted to be involved. Who knows what we will find. My ambition is that I can contribute by finding new ways to share our discoveries and paint a picture of the world at these tiny scales. So often we find that by carefully studying one part of Nature, we learn new ways of thinking that can be transferred to other seemingly unrelated aspects of life, offering rich insights.