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Indian scientist wins award for research on glass

July 09, 2007 09:25 IST
Dr Himanshu Jain, the scientist who first compared the movements of atoms in glass to the wiggling of jellyfish in water, has won the top international award in the field of glass science.

Jain, director of the International Materials Institute for New Functionalities in Glass at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has received the Otto Schott Research Award at the International Congress on Glass in Strasbourg, France.

The biennial award, which carries a cash prize of 25,000 Euros, is the premier prize for glass research and is presented to recognise excellent scientific research and to encourage cooperation between science and industry.

It is named after Friedrich Otto Schott (1851-1935), a German chemist who invented borosilicate glass, which is known for its high tolerance to heat, chemicals and sudden temperature changes.

Jain, a professor of material sciences and engineering at Lehigh, in receiving the award was lauded for his 'outstanding work towards advancing fundamental understanding of the movements of atoms inside glass.'

The Donors' Association for the Promotion of Science in Germany, which administers the Schott Award, also noted Jain's research into unique light-induced phenomena in glass, his studies of the corrosion of glass in nuclear environments, and his work with sensors, infrared optics, waveguides, photolithography, nanolithography and other photonic applications of glass.

Jain was taking a boat ride to the Isle of Skye off Scotland's west coast 20 years ago when he first conceived of the connection between jellyfish and atoms in glass. Watching the hundreds of jellyfish in the Sea of the Hebrides, he couldn't help noticing what many before had observed -- that the invertebrates were not swimming but wiggling as they drifted in water.

The fluctuations of the jellyfish caused Jain to wonder anew about the movements of atoms in glass, and he found that when the temperature of glass is lowered to 4 degrees Kelvin, or near absolute zero, these atomic movements slowed from a lively hop to a virtual standstill.

When he returned from Scotland, he thought more deeply about the nuclear-spin relaxation studies that had conducted with colleagues in Germany and the dielectric measurements of super-cold glass that his former adviser had recently reported.

Observing the super-cold glass in the lab, he detected a weak signal with unique characteristics, indicating that some atomic movement was still occurring.

According to Jain, "What we saw at this extremely low temperature was clearly something different. We proposed that a group of atoms was sitting in one place but wiggling like a jellyfish, which does not swim but has small fluctuations of movement.

He initially called the phenomenon the 'jellyfish' fluctuation for the AC (alternating current) conductivity of ionic solids at low frequency and low temperatures, and later coined the term 'jellyfish fluctuations of atoms in solids.'

Jain's theory initially met with resistance, with some in the field pooh-poohing his contention, but has since gained acceptance and is described now in textbooks on materials science vis-a-vis materials and their behaviors.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC