We need crystal growers!

In a letter published in this week’s issue of Nature, Christian Kloc relates some of his experience over the years as a crystal grower. He states

Of the laboratories where I have worked and grown crystals over the past 30 years, not one is growing crystals today.

Barring the possibility that the author of the letter actually jinx’s the labs where he works, 😉 the sentence is a pretty harsh indictment, but one that does not surprise me. Indeed, crystal growing (that is, the fabrication in the laboratory of large, near-perfect crystals of the materials that are of interest to current condensed matter research) is a delicate, unpredictable, and relatively costly enterprise.

I emphasize the word ‘relatively’ because growing crystals is not nearly as costly as other, much larger endeavors, such as building and operating large-scale facilities (I should know that, since I work at one). However those are carried out by governments, not universities. Crystal-growing is at the upper end of what, say, a Physics department of a medium-sized university could afford. Moreover I understand (though note this is second-hand knowledge – I am a theorist, after all) that it is a bit of an art form, where breakthroughs are often serendipitous and often a program leads to nothing after much hard work. So in some sense I guess one could use crystal growing as a measure the level of commitment of a country to genuinely novel condensed matter physics research.

If Christian Kloc‘s experience is anything to go by, it looks like many future breakthroughs will come not from Europe or America, but from Asia. Indeed, this is already happening, as the discovery of the pnictide superconductors attests. Ultimately the problem lies, I think, with the pressure university-based academics are put under to obtain concrete results on a fairly short time scale and within rather tight budgets. Perhaps the solution to the problem in the Western countries is for the large facilities to start growing their crystals themselves…


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