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Department of Physics Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
MICHAEL ALTMAN
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Department of Physics
Hong Kong University
of Science and Technology

MICHAEL S. ALTMAN
HEAD OF DEPARTMENT OF PHYSICS, HONG KONG UNIVERSITY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

1. UNIVERSITY

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) opened in October 1991 as a technological university dedicated to the advancement of learning and scholarship, with special emphases on research, postgraduate education, and close collaboration with business and industry. HKUST occupies a beautiful 60-hectare site on the northern end of Clear Water Bay Peninsula, less than 30 minutes driving time from central Hong Kong. Situated on the slopes along the shore, the campus grounds are terraced to afford buildings on all levels unobstructed panoramic views of the sea (Fig. 1). Three of the university's four schools-Science, Engineering, and Business and Management-award both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. The School of Humanities and Social Science offers postgraduate degrees and general education for all undergraduates. The medium of instruction for all courses (except humanities courses on Chinese language and literature) is English. The university currently employs 464 diverse international faculty members (all of whom hold a PhD) to teach 8,699 undergraduate and 3,904 postgraduate students. The student body is also diverse, spanning more than 30 countries over five continents.
Over the past two decades, HKUST has amassed an impressive record of achievements, and is now well known outside Hong Kong for its prowess in many fields of research. For two consecutive years, QS Asian University Rankings has named HKUST the top university in Asia. The most recent Times Higher Education ranking of young (under 50) universities placed HKUST at number three in the world.
Further details about the university can be found at the web page http://www.ust.hk.


fig. 1: The HKUST campus.

2. PHYSICS DEPARTMENT

The Physics Department at HKUST has 28 full-time faculty members (17 experimental and 11 theoretical), with a current enrollment of 295 undergraduate and 105 postgraduate students. The mission of the department is as follows:
By pursing research at the frontier of knowledge and innovation at the cutting edge of technology, the ultimate goal of the physics faculty is to preserve and nurture a sense of wonder about the natural world, and to impart it to the students as a driving motivation for learning."
The Physics Department has gained world recognition for its research achievements. Independent research provides the core of our MPhil and PhD programs at the postgraduate level, and is an important component of our undergraduate programs as well.

3. RESEARCH

At its inception in 1991, the department was designed with a focus on condensed matter and optical physics, with the goal of achieving a critical mass that permits greater impact in these fields. By the end of this foundational era, when the department had reached its current size, a strong collaboration in advanced materials, nanoscience, and nanotechnology had emerged that was built on close collaboration between experimentalists working on materials fabrication and characterization and the interplay between experiment and theory.
Within the past decade, research in existing areas has focused on a range of topics of current interest to the community, including topological insulators, graphene, strongly correlated electrons, spintronics, superconductivity, supramolecular assembly, nanotubes, nanowires and nanomechanical devices. In the same period, the department has begun to expand into new areas, including soft matter; plasmonic, photonic, and phononic metamaterials; atomic, molecular, and optical physics; and particle theory and cosmology. Each of these areas is now vigorous and thriving, with several faculty members, many postgraduate students, and productive collaborations with institutions around the world.
Below we provide an overview of research in the Physics Department, including a sampling of recent major achievements and a brief survey of a few highlighted topics.

Selected Recent Achievements

  • We observed homogenous crystal melting with singleparticle dynamics for the first time (Fig. 2) and demonstrated that the nucleation precursors are particle-exchange loops rather than any defects assumed before. Our measured superheat limit of the colloidal crystal contributes a new point to the famous hard-sphere phase diagram. Science 338, 87 (2012).
  • We performed the first experimental test of the universal scaling law of diffusion using simultaneous measurements of the diffusion coefficient and pair correlation function for monolayers of strongly interacting colloidal particles. Some types of colloidal monolayers obey the scaling law, while others deviate from it. Phys. Rev. Lett. 110, 078302 (2013).
  • By coherently controlling the light-matter interaction at a single-photon level, we have made a breakthrough in measuring and determining the propagation of a single-photon waveform. We obtained the first observation of the optical precursor of a single photon, and brought closure to the long-standing debate on the true speed of information carried by a single photon. Phys. Rev. Lett. 103, 093602 (2009); 106, 243602 (2011).
  • We have predicted a new phenomenon in topological superconductors: Majorana-fermion-induced resonant Andreev reflection. Phys. Rev. Lett. 103, 237001 (2009).
  • We have proposed the concept of magnonic spin transfer torque and its effect on magnetic domain wall motion. Phys. Rev. Lett. 107, 177207 (2011).
  • We have demonstrated an enormous enhancement of the upper critical field in ultrathin lead nanowire arrays. ACS Nano (http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/nn400604v).
  • The weak antilocalization effect in topological insulator Bi2Te3 thin film was shown to be robust against deposition of nonmagnetic Au impurities on the surface of the films, but it is quenched by the deposition of magnetic Fe impurities, which destroy the ? Berry phase of the topological surface states. Phys. Rev. Lett. 106, 166805 (2011).
  • We have developed membrane-type acoustic metamaterials that can totally reflect low frequency sound at tunable frequencies. Phys. Rev. Lett. 101, 204301 (2008).
  • We proposed a hybrid elastic solid that can mimic the response of liquid over a certain frequency regime. Nature Materials 10, 620 (2011).
  • We have discovered dark acoustic metamaterials that can absorb over 90% of low frequency sound by using 200 micron-thick elastic membranes. Nature Commun. 3, 756 (2012).
  • We have experimentally realized materials with simultaneous negative mass and negative bulk modulus by using two coupled elastic membranes. Phys. Rev. Lett. 110, 134310 (2013).
  • We introduced the concept of "cloaking at a distance." This kind of cloak will enable an object to see the outside world while remaining invisible. Phys. Rev. Lett. 102, 093901 (2009).
  • We showed for the first time that metamaterials can perform optical illusions by making one object (e.g. an apple) look like another object (e.g. an orange) at one specific frequency. Phys. Rev. Lett. 102, 253902 (2009).
  • We used Dirac cone physics to create a metamaterial which has zero refractive index (or more preciselyεeff = μeff = 0). Nature Materials 10, 582 (2011).
  • We discovered that an "optical tractor beam" is in fact possible. We can pull objects from a far distance towards a light source using a beam of light. Nature Photonics 5, 531 (2011).

fig. 2: Inside a three-dimensional superheated colloidal crystal composed of micrometer sized spheres, a liquid nucleus is developed.

Research Highlight: 3D Super-Resolution Imaging of Microtubules

Since March 2012 we have been working together with colleagues in Life Science and Chemistry on an interdisciplinary project on superresolution imaging. Optical microscopy has been an indispensable tool for biologists for centuries, due to its non-invasive nature allowing living objects to be imaged. However, its resolution is limited to about 200nm due to diffraction of visible light. With the advent of electron microscopy in the 1940's, organelles as small as 10nm can be visualized in specially prepared samples, but not in living cells.

Recently there has been much activity in superresolution optical microscopy 'breaking' this 200nm limit. These new and rapidly advancing techniques all involve laser technology and advanced image reconstruction schemes, relying much on the kinetic properties of custom designed optical labeling dyes, as well as single photon detection technology. Successful applications of these techniques on biologically significant problems require close collaboration of interested colleagues with diverse backgrounds in physics, chemistry and life science. Our center aims to provide such a platform for collaborative and interactive research, and in particular provide opportunities for PG students in traditionally separate areas to work together on these projects and gain experience in interdisciplinary research. As shown in Fig. 3, we now have resolution of better than 25nm (conventional wide field image with 200nm resolution superimposed for comparison) and a number of biological and interesting research projects requiring superresolution are currently ongoing.

fig. 3: 3D superresolution and conventional images of intracellular objects: (a) Clathrin coated pits, demonstrating our 25nm resolution, (b) mitochondria and (c) microtubules. The color bar represents color coded z sectioning in nm.

Research Highlight: Carbon Nanotubes

In 2000, Physics Department faculty members succeeded in fabricating single-walled carbon nanotubes with a diameter of about 0.4nm using zeolite as the template and succeeded in visualizing these thin carbon nanotubes through a transmission electron microscope (Nature 408 (2000) 50). Theory has predicted that 0.4 nm single-walled carbon nanotubes are the thinnest carbon nanotubes that can still remain stable. Such small tubes showed exciting properties, such as superconductivity with transition temperatures of 15 K (Science 292 (2001) 2462). This breakthrough was achieved through synergy between theory, characterization, and sample fabrication groups within the department. The effort has persisted for more than a decade, with recent evidence of a superconducting specific heat transition at 15 K (PNAS 106 (2009) 7209) and a clear observation of the Meissner effect (Nanoscale 4 (2012) 21). The most recent study of nanotube superconductivity was conducted on doublewalled carbon nanotubes (Fig. 4), the world's smallest concentric cables, in collaboration with M. Endo's group in Nagano, Japan. Clear evidence, comprising electrical and specific heat data, confirmed that 70% of the metallic double-walled carbon nanotubes can become superconducting at low temperatures, in the range of 4-18 K (Nature: Scientific Reports 2 (2012) 625).

fig. 4: (a) Transmission electron microscopy image showing the double-walled carbon nanotube (DWCNT) bundle, (b) model of DWCNT and (c) scanning electron microscopy image of the DWCNT bundles.

Research Highlight: Particle Theory and Cosmology

HKUST has taken the lead in establishing a Particle Theory and Cosmology Group, the first comprehensive research program in fundamental physics in Hong Kong. The research conducted by current faculty members (Profs. T. Liu, G. Shiu, and H. Tye) spans a wide range of topics at the frontiers of basic science: string theory, inflationary universe, dark matter, dark energy, astrophysics, and LHC phenomenology. This new initiative at HKUST also triggered the formation of a Joint Consortium of Fundamental Physics (JCFP) in Hong Kong among HKUST, HKU, and CUHK. JCFP provides a platform for Hong Kong to participate substantially in big international projects such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment at CERN as well as major astrophysical/ cosmological projects.

4. UNDERGRADUATE EDUCATION

The Physics Department offers a BSc degree program in physics. The aim of the program is to equip students with scientific problem solving skills to meet the needs of modern society, and to nurture top students to become future scientific leaders. Within this major program, the department offers three options: the Honors Physics Option, the Physics and Mathematics Option, and the Applied Physics Option, to fit the background and goals of different students. Currently in 2012/13 there are 295 students enrolled in the physics degree program. Internationalization of the student body is a strength of our program. We currently have physics major students from Mainland China and countries including Cambodia, Nepal, Finland, and Russia. In addition, we maintain a very active overseas student exchange program with universities worldwide.

Our program emphasizes early engagement of undergraduate students in research-related activities. Through elective directed study courses and the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, many physics undergraduate students conduct physics research projects. With generous donations from ex-President Paul Ching Wu Chu, Mrs. May Chu, and an anonymous donor, the Physics Department has set up the following programs to promote the academic and research culture among students: an annual research award, scholarships to students with outstanding academic performance, and awards for overseas conference presentations and overseas summer research. The destinations for overseas summer research in the past two years included CERN, Harvard University, and Brown University.

Outside-the-classroom learning experiences are another strength of our program. Each year a group of physics students receives training in order to give presentations in a mini-lecture series targeted at secondary school students, thereby introducing interesting physics topics at the popular level. Physics faculty and students also organize the Hong Kong Physics Olympiad and train the Hong Kong team competing in the Asian and International Physics Olympiads. Our students also have done well in international competitions. Last year, a team of four physics students was the first runner-up in the 6th Global Trajectory Optimization Competition (Fig. 5), and trailed the champion by a narrow margin.

fig. 5: The HKUST team beat 32 contesting teams worldwide in its first attempt at the Global Trajectory Optimization Competition organized by ESA and NASA.

In addition to teaching students enrolled in its major program, the Physics Department also significantly contributes to common core courses aimed at promoting the appreciation of science among non-major students. In addition to providing very popular astrophysics courses, members of the physics faculty take an active part in developing new courses such as "Physics in Movies," which recently won an Honorary Mention in the university's Common Core Course Excellence Award.

The success of our program is measured by the quality of our alumni. Besides staying at HKUST to pursue higher degrees, our best graduates have also been admitted to graduate schools of top-notch universities including Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley, and Columbia. Others have found employment in every sector of society, including education, engineering and industry, and business and commerce. Some of our alumni have also founded hightech companies in Hong Kong and Mainland China.

5. CONCLUDING REMARKS

In only two decades, the Physics Department of HKUST has matured into a leader in both physics research and teaching innovation. At this young and vibrant university, opportunities abound for those who share our delight in the marvels of the natural world and would like to join in the study of physics at the forefront of modern technology. For further details about the department and its programs, please visit our web page at http://physics.ust.hk/.

 

Michael Altman obtained his BA degree with Honors (1982) from the University of Pennsylvania and his Sc.M. (1984) and PhD (1988) degrees from Brown University in the United States. He was awarded an Alexander von Homboldt Foundation Research Fellowship (1988-1990) for post-doctoral studies at the Technische Universitaet Clausthal in Germany. He joined the Physics Department of HKUST in 1991. In 1997, he received the School of Science Teaching Award of HKUST.