Position: Senior Lecturer, Field: Physics, Organisation: Victoria University of Wellington and MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology
Physics at work and play
Dr Ben Ruck is someone who makes the most of his passion for physics. He works with physics and plays with physics. For work, Ben teaches physics to students at Victoria University of Wellington, and he also heads a research team working on new materials for the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. Outside work, when he’s not with his young family, Ben does kickboxing and mountain running. Both are sports where knowledge of forces and motion give him an edge.
Ben’s work is with thin films, just a few nanometres thick, of rare earth nitrides, such as gadolinium nitride. The rare-earths are a closely related group of metallic elements, which you’ll normally find shown at the bottom of the periodic table. When combined with nitrogen, some of these rare-earths become new semiconductor materials, with interesting magnetic and electrical properties. This is the world of spintronics. Electronic devices work by controlling the flow of electric charges (that is, electrons). It has recently been discovered that it is also possible to control the electrons’ magnetic properties, called ‘spin’ – hence spintronics.
Theory meets experiment
Theoretical chemists use their knowledge of such things as atomic structure and the periodic table to predict the properties of chemical compounds and what might happen in chemical reactions. A few years ago, Ben, who is an experimental physicist, realised that theoretical chemists were trying to predict the properties of rare-earth nitrides, but they had very little experimental data to guide them. Ben had already developed ways to grow a semiconductor called gallium nitride, so he was able to turn his skills to helping the theorists test their ideas.
While the theorists needed the data from Ben’s practical experiments, Ben needed to expand his knowledge of theory to understand his results. He had to find out about the theory of the electric and magnetic structure of atoms. He also had to learn new experimental techniques, such as X-ray spectroscopy, and how to grow nanofilms of material in a vacuum to keep them pure.
Of course, Ben doesn’t work alone. He works closely with scientists around New Zealand and with others in Australia, America and France.
Like all scientists, Ben is always feeding his curiosity. He has been drawn to science because he sees it as a challenge, a way of getting to the bottom of mysteries. He is attracted to the idea of making things never made before, of finding out things never known before.
This article is based on information current in 2008.