Volume I, Issue 3: February 2009

How things work

by Kathryn Bold, University Communications

Wilson Ho
Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications
Wilson Ho peers through one of his homemade microscopes to capture molecules and atoms in action.
Ho and his microscope
Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications
Wilson Ho and his scanning tunneling microscope, which offers unprecedented views of individual atoms and molecules.
Silicon atoms
An image of silicon taken with Wilson Ho's scanning tunneling microscope. Each purple sphere is a silicon atom.

Touring Wilson Ho's lab is like a trip to Radio Shack, a high school metalworking shop and the set of "Battlestar Galactica" all rolled into one. Here, in the basement of Reines Hall, Ho and his students have cobbled together metal parts, tubing and tanks, massive tangles of extension cords, wire, computer chips and even scraps of aluminum foil.

Don't let the lab's unassuming appearance fool you. Ho, the Donald Bren Professor of Physics & Chemistry, builds some of the world's most sophisticated microscopes — advanced instruments that reveal things no one has seen before.

"In our lab, we're interested in knowing what makes things around us tick — at the smallest atomic scale," Ho says.

Standing before his scanning tunneling microscope, an elaborate apparatus rising two stories high and hitched to a computer, Ho sounds like a car buff describing his favorite set of wheels.

This machine allows us to probe new realms of science.

"This machine allows us to probe new realms of science," he says. "It's like a human being. If you spend time with it and pay attention to it, it rewards you with good results."

The microscope — along with other power tools connected to it, such as a femtosecond laser and optical instruments — has rewarded team Ho well. It allows the researchers to see and interact with individual atoms and molecules 50,000 to 500,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The proof is in the pictures. Ho has images of atoms and molecules — of everything from gold to color dyes — that provide visual evidence of fundamental chemistry and physics concepts. Some images are reproduced in textbooks.

"When students see things, what they are learning is more believable," Ho says. "We're seeing what's inside a single molecule and bringing to life chemistry in action."

Shedding light on how atoms interact and form complex systems has led to advances in everything from computer chips to catalytic converters in automobiles.

By measuring how a single molecule conducts electricity and responds to a magnetic field, for instance, Ho and his lab team have helped revolutionize electronics — allowing the industry to develop smaller, faster and more powerful things we use every day, including computers, CDs, memory chips and disk drives.

His research also has applications for the natural world. Ho's lab has brought new understanding to a chemical reaction fundamental to life — how sunlight converts to different forms of energy through photosynthesis — by studying the molecule that absorbs light in the chlorophyll cells of plants.

In our lab, there's always the possibility of seeing something new and unexpected that no one else has seen before.

"In our lab, there's always the possibility of seeing something new and unexpected that no one else has seen before," Ho says. "This excitement drives us to work even harder."

Born in Taiwan, Ho was already captivated by science when he immigrated to the U.S. at age 14. He taught at Cornell University for 20 years before joining UCI in 2000, basing his career on pushing science forward by developing instruments to see and probe things at the smallest scale.

"If you have a new way to measure things, you're able to find new science," he says.