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Quantum Connections: Stalactites, Flagella, and Ponytail Physics: A Ray of Light on Natural Pattern Formation

I have always been interested in how seemingly unrelated areas of science interface. Whether it is the connections between physics and cancer, optics and oceans, or agriculture and space sciences, finding, exploring, and reporting on these junctions and the pioneers who dabble in these disciplines is a real and regular delight of mine. And there’s a lot more to discover nowadays, with boundaries between subjects more rapidly blurring, and innovative alliances between scientific siblings more swiftly evolving.

My own career has been characterized in this complex way – I have degrees in mathematics and anthropology, pursued grant-funded research in astrophysics and Ancient Egyptian cryptography and religion, was President of the Society of Physics Students while in school, studied Middle Eastern Studies abroad at the American University of Cairo, and launched my career in science communications. Along the way, I have been an entrepreneur, science and business writer, professional speaker, science and engineering careers consultant, event planner, and corporate comedian. So when it came time for me to launch this new blog, I knew that it would somehow represent my devotion to the areas of science and engineering that combine, collect and connect unique areas of expertise, and celebrate the talented scholars who look beyond the everyday obvious and seek out strange new worlds of scientific continua.

Case in point: Dr. Raymond E. Goldstein, Schlumberger Professor of Complex Physical Systems in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. I have known him for more than a decade; he was a young, eager professor in the University of Arizona Department of Physics, when I began my career as a young, eager director of communications in the same department. Goldstein is a biophysicist who has successfully bonded the experimental and the theoretical sides of his business in his continuing mission to understand pattern formation in nature.

waltzing volvox: Two colonies of the colonial alga Volvox (italics) orbiting each other. photo credit - Knut Drescher and Raymond E. Goldstein, University of Cambridge

 

Whether he is analyzing fluid dynamics of populations of bacteria, coming up with the equation that describes the shape of stalactites and icicles, or uncovering a new class of issues in the properties of hair bundles, Goldstein sees splendor everywhere and pines to penetrate it. “I keep an open mind,” he shares about the principles that guide his career. “Things that at first sight seem odd may have beauty.”

 

He is best known for advancing the fields of biophysics and mathematical physics through his studies of the physical aspects of multicellularity. His work demonstrated how bacteria move in coherent groups when their concentration is very high. He also recognized that green algae could be used as models for understanding the synchronization of cilia, which direct fluid flow in our bodies. “For decades, scientists were trying to understand how nearby flagella organize their movements,” he explained. The experimental and theoretical studies in Goldstein’s lab produced the first quantitative analysis of the dynamics of nearby flagella. “Until a few years ago, no one understood the detail of what was happening. There was a big gap between the experimental data and theory.”

Most recently, Goldstein hit the news because of his desire to comprehend how hair and other fibers form and move within bundles. Several years ago, consumer products giant Unilever reached out to him, requesting his assistance in understanding problems associated with the physics of hair. “At first, I didn’t understand how physics entered into the discussion,” he admits. But he jumped in anyway, curious, and soon learned that describing the actions of bundles of hair is a complex problem, and one whose ramifications stretch beyond the shampoo set. Goldstein, working in concert with collaborators at Unilever and the University of Warwick, discovered that the shapes of ponytails are actually determined by what he cheekingly calls the “Rapunzal Number” and provides insight into how any bunch of individual fibers come together, tangle, detangle and move about. His research not only helps make my ponytail ever more manageable, but also gives us insight into the compressibility of fiber insulation, and how seemingly random filaments come together to form materials.

mobius strip soap film: a soap film on a doubly-looped wire frame, taking the form of a Mobius strip. photo credit - Raymond E. Goldstein, University of Cambridge

 

Goldstein didn’t always act in the scientific theatre of multidisciplinary stages. After training as a theorist and receiving his PhD in statistical physics from Princeton University, “I found that I was much more attracted to problems with motion, dynamics and patterns that form,” he recalls. So he looked for and landed a postdoc appointment (at the University of Chicago) where “I could learn about dynamic phenomenon in close connection with experiment.” He soon became aware of new problems relating to fluid dynamics and nonequilibrium phenomena in the natural world. “It was a slow evolution…I got the confidence to branch out and hunt for new problems myself,” he says, and along the way discovered that his “true calling” is pursuing research at the junction of biology, physics, mathematics and chemistry.

Goldstein also gained confidence to be able to work on both sides of the scientific fence – he realized that he could be both a theorist and an experimentalist, despite the fact that “it had been drummed into my head that I couldn’t do both.” He acknowledges he had to retrain himself to learn how to design experiments, use specific instrumentation, and conduct analyses from an experimentalist’s point of view. But he jokes “that’s what tenure is for,” noting that there are still people who are surprised he can find success in both arenas.

Goldstein’s unremitting nature of keeping an open mind about nature has served him well. Among many awards and grants, he recently received a Senior Investigator Award from the Wellcome Trust, a prestigious honor for scientists in the UK.

If you ask Goldstein whether he is an experimentalist or a theorist, a biologist or a physicist, his response is simply and elegantly “I am a scientist.” Keep an eye on this one, folks. Expect electrifying things from this scientist as he passionately pounds the pavement for problems that entangle and detangle diverse matters of nature.

Alaina G. Levine is a freelance science writer, professional speaker, corporate comedian, and President of Quantum Success, a leadership and career consulting enterprise. She can be contacted through her website at www.alainalevine.com.

 


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