Forty years ago, mathematician Mark Kac asked the theoretical question, "Can one hear the shape of a drum?"
If drums of different shapes always produce their own unique sound spectrum, then it should be possible to identify the shape of a specific drum merely by studying its spectrum, thus "hearing" the drum's shape (a procedure analogous to spectroscopy, the way scientists detect the composition of a faraway star by studying its light spectrum).
But what if two drums of different shapes could emit exactly the same sound? If so, it would be impossible to work backward from the spectrum and uniquely surmise the physical structure of the drum, because there would be more than one correct answer to the question.
It took until the 1990s for mathematicians to prove that, in fact, two drums of different shapes could produce the same sound. In other words, you can't hear the shape of a drum. That outcome, which was physically verified in one instance with vibrations on the surface of soap bubbles, raised theoretical questions about spectroscopy.
"This revolutionized our conception of the fundamental connections between shape and sound, but also had profound implications for spectroscopy in general, because it introduced an ambiguity," according to Stanford physicist Hari Manoharan.
For Manoharan, the next step in studying this conundrum was to take the drum question to another levela much lower level. He and his students investigated the drum question in the quantum realm, where it could have an effect on real nano-electronic systems.
Using a tunneling scanning microscope and two roomfuls of equipment to move around individual carbon monoxide molecules on a copper surface, they built tiny walls only one-molecule high and shaped them into nine-sided enclosures that could resonate like drums (because of the quantum wave/particle duality of the electrons within the enclosure).
Manoharan calls these enclosur
|Contact: Dan Stober|