Black silicon was discovered because [Eric] Mazur started thinking outside the boundaries of the research he was doing in the late 1990s. His research group had been financed by the Army Research Organization to explore catalytic reactions on metallic surfaces.
“I got tired of metals and was worrying that my Army funding would dry up,” he said. “I wrote the new direction into a research proposal without thinking much about it — I just wrote it in; I don’t know why.” And even though there wasn’t an immediate practical application, he received the financing.
It was several years before he directed a graduate student to pursue his idea, which involved shining an exceptionally powerful laser light — briefly matching the energy produced by the sun falling on the surface of the entire earth — on a silicon wafer. On a hunch, the researcher also applied sulfur hexafluoride, a gas used by the semiconductor industry to make etchings for circuits.
The silicon wafer looked black to the naked eye. But when Dr. Mazur and his researchers examined the material with an electron microscope, they discovered that the surface was covered with a forest of ultra-tiny spikes.
At first, the researchers had no idea what they had stumbled onto, and that is typical of the way many scientific discoveries emerge. Cellophane, Teflon, Scotchgard and aspartame are among the many inventions that have emerged through some form of fortunate accident or intuition.
“In science, the most exciting expression isn’t ‘Eureka!’ It’s ‘Huh?’” said Michael Hawley, a computer scientist based in Cambridge, Mass., and a board member and investor in SiOnyx.
Black silicon has since been found to have extreme sensitivity to light. It is now on the verge of commercialization, most likely first in night vision systems.
Far from being an ancient myth with no contemporary relevance, the story of Adam’s task has inspired and shaped human endeavor throughout the centuries. Modern science got its start in the golden age of exploration, when collectors began cataloging exotic plants and animals in the hope of restoring Adam’s complete knowledge of the world. Some sixteenth-century scholars, like Benito Montano (1527–1598), gave Hebrew names to the places Columbus discovered, because they assumed that the Bible must contain all the words we need to understand the New World. Others realized that there were more things to know and to be named than they ever imagined. Francis Bacon exhorted gentlemen of means to build gardens “with rooms to stable in all rare beasts and to cage in all rare birds . . . so you may have in small compass a model of the universal nature made private.” Adam’s sin, Christians believed, not only expelled the first couple from the Garden. Plants and animals too had been dispersed, but now scholars could imagine a return to paradise by achieving universal knowledge.
If God were to bring all the animals before man today, the line would be too long. This scene could only take place on the computer, which is exactly what the new Encyclopedia of Life proposes. This remarkable project aims to gather descriptions of every species known to science on a single website. Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson has been the driving force behind the Encyclopedia, and his enthusiasm for it is unbounded. “It’s going to have everything known on it,” he said, “and everything new is going to be added as we go along.” Nearly two million species are known, but scientists estimate that ten times that many are yet to be discovered. Most of these unknown species are bacteria, fungi, and insects. We can name them because we know, or want to know, everything about them.
Historically, humans have often felt the need to be special, and just as often have been disappointed. The Earth, as it turned out, wasn’t at the center of the universe. Humans are smart, but in the end, they evolve, live and die just like all the other living things on the planet. In astronomy, the prevailing theoretical models of how the solar system got here have assume that, based on past experience, we’re probably just an average solar system.
But according to a new study by Northwestern University astronomers looking at 300 planets orbiting other stars, we might really be special. “We now know that these other planetary systems don’t look like [our] solar system at all,” said Frederic Rasio, an astronomer at Northwestern, in Chicago. Computer simulations used by Rasio’s team showed that the birth of a planetary system is a very violent affair, with the gas disk that gives birth to the planets pushing them toward the central star, where they often crowd together to be engulfed. Gravitational encounters between growing planets fling some across the planetary system, or into deep space. “Such a turbulent history would seem to leave little room for the sedate solar system, and our simulations show exactly that,” said Rasio in a news release from Northwestern University. Our solar system “had to be born under just the right conditions to become the quiet place we see,” he said. “The vast majority of other planetary systems didn’t have these special properties at birth and became something very different.”
In the 2004 movie “The Butterfly Effect” - we watched it so you don’t have to - Ashton Kutcher travels back in time, altering his troubled childhood in order to influence the present, though with dismal results. In 1990’s “Havana,” Robert Redford, a math-wise gambler, tells Lena Olin, “A butterfly can flutter its wings over a flower in China and cause a hurricane in the Caribbean. They can even calculate the odds.”
Such borrowings of Lorenz’s idea might seem authoritative to unsuspecting viewers, but they share one major problem: They get his insight precisely backwards. The larger meaning of the butterfly effect is not that we can readily track such connections, but that we can’t.