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Ask Rich Your Questions

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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We got the chance to ask Rich Robinson 10 questions, and you to followed with the 11th question (and the 12th and 13th, too).

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Q: Owen

I think your photos are great. I particularly like the one of you and your dad. If you could make a living as a photographer, would you stop being a scientist?

A: Rich Robinson

Photo only?

Owen, thats a tough one. I love photography but I rarely take it home with me at night; when I take pictures I’m completely involved during the “shoot” but after its over that evaporates. Science, however, keeps my attention all day and all night, in the shower, when I walk to work, when I eat oatmeal and oranges in the morning… maybe if I learned how to pre-plan shoots and sets and scenarios for my pictures it would take over.

Q: Julie

What kind of camera do you use, and have you gone through more than one? Do you prefer taking pictures of relative and friends, or taking them of strangers? Who is your favorite photographer?

A: Rich Robinson

Hi Julie,

I use a Mamiya RZ67 Pro II. Its a great camera. It takes 120 film so the negatives are really big (read: it captures a lot of information/detail so you can blow up pictures to large sizes). It’s the third “medium format” camera I’ve used. My friend first loaned me a Pentax 6×7, then I borrowed a 6×6 camera, then I jumped in and bought this Mamiya. You have to look through the top of the camera to see the subject so it hangs down in front of you. The advantage, I’ve found, is that people expect you to look through a viewfinder with the camera on your face and when that happens they react by striking a pose, but with my camera, since I look down instead of at them, they give me a more natural pose because they aren’t expecting it as much.

I really am only good at taking pictures of friends. The person really has to be comfortable with me in order to get a good picture, otherwise it doesn’t really work. The pictures come out like snapshots instead of portraits.

There are some links on my page of some of my favorite photographers. Check it out!

Thanks for the questions.

Q: Ania

I saw that your undergrad major was Mechanical Engineering… What first turned you on to nanomaterials?

A: Rich Robinson

I sat in on this class called solid state physics and it blew my mind. I learned about atoms and crystal lattices and vibrations and it really opened my eyes to fundamental science.

Q: Rick

I really enjoyed the videos! Do you think that in the science world, nanotechnology will become as “big” as, say, space science in the 50s?


A: Rich Robinson

I certainly hope so! There is so much interesting work that’s come out of the science of nanoparticles I’m sure theres a great period of nanotechnology to follow.

Q: Haley

Other than the one of you and your Dad, do you have other favorite photos (of the ones you have taken)?

A: Rich Robinson

It”s hard to compete with the one of my dad, but I think they showed a good sampling of my favorites. I really like to ones of my friend Jay; he really shows up in pictures so its easy to take pictures of him.

Q: Carrie

What kind of properties change at the nano level?

A: Rich Robinson

Many different properties of materials change at the nanoscale, thats the exciting part! The optical properties change: its color gets shifted to the blue as the particle gets smaller. Thermal properties change too: the wavelength of a heat vibration can be around 100 nm so when your particle is smaller than this the heat wave will bounce off the walls and decrease (usually) the thermal conductivity, so it acts more like an insulator than a metal. Other things like the magnetic properties change as well. Its a whole new playing field.

Q: Ilan

Dr. Robinson – I am a scientist myself and you are a true inspiration and role model. How do you find the time to create such wonderful art work, given your day job trying to solve our energy crisis? Finally, regarding the photography, do you ever do weddings?

A: Rich Robinson

You sound smart and knowledgeable. I’ll bet you know more than me already!

Q: Ms. Comer

I teach Living Environment at an all-boys, public high school in the Bronx. I showed your video clips to my scholars. They were surpised to see that a scientist would have an interest and life outside of the lab. They had a few questions for you. Thank you for taking the time to answer.

A: Rich Robinson

Happy to. I’ve copied their questions, with my answers below:

What was the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do in the lab?
Learn chemistry on the fly. Luckily, I was surrounded by a bunch of people smarter than me so I could ask them a lot of questions.

What are some new developments in nanotechnology?
Graphene is definitely the hottest new material. It is a single sheet of carbon atoms, 1 atomic layer thick. It has some amazing properties. Google it!

Would you choose another life besides science?
Science is so great. I get paid to come up with questions and then try to answer them. It seems like such a racket. I basically can decide I want to learn about something (why is the sky blue, how do plants make energy from light, how do nano-magnets work) and they pay me to research it. Talk about being in charge!

What pushed you to work harder than others?
I think I have always been very interested in knowing the “truth” about something. Every time I learned something I wanted to know where it came from, how it evolved, who invented it, and how to reconstruct it from scratch, like if I were lost on a desert island I should be able to rewrite a physics text book, or at least a chapter.

How did you feel about being called a professor at a young age?
I thought it was funny. the other kids weren’t really trying to complement me, so it wasn’t like they were calling me cool. But I guess they called it right.

When did you become a real professor?
I just started my professorship a year ago. I’ve been here at Cornell for a year now and its gone by so quickly.

How strong does a microscope have to be to view a nanobot?
A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, so you have to magnify it a great deal! Most of our pictures are magnified around 300,000 times. The other thing is since the nanoparticles are so small we can’t use ordinary light waves to see them because the light waves are actually too big. We have to shoot electrons at them, which make much smaller waves than light, and that’s how we “see” these nanoparticles.

What degrees do you have?
I have a B.S. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering, and a PhD. In Applied Physics

How long have you been a nanoscientist?
Not too long now, I guess 10 years officially. As Malcolm Gladwell (a writer) notes that success in any field takes about 10,000 hours of work. That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years. I’m certainly near this mark so hopefully the success will follow.

Do you still have the first picture that you ever took?
My parents bought me a 35 mm camera in 7th grade. And I remember thinking how interesting black and white prints were. I’ll have to look for those

Have you made any new discoveries?
Just recently we have found a way to make nanosheets of metal oxides. Very thin sheets that look like a sheet of paper (but only 20 nanometers thick! A nanometer is a billionth of a meter)

Q: Ms. Dunbar

Do you ever use photography when working with nanomaterials?

A: Rich Robinson

I am definitely persistent and make sure I get the best picture I can when doing my science. Its so important to be able to tell a story with just pictures. I think that has helped me with presentations as well; use less words and more self-explanatory figures/pictures.

Q: Ms. Comer

It”s Ms. Comer again. My Conceptual Science Class had a few questions too.

A: Rich Robinson

Hi, here are more answers:

What is a good experiment to do for a science fair?
There are so many good websites out there with interesting ideas. You should google them. Look up the MRSEC websites from NSF. Here are a couple that have interesting projects, science kits, and education resources: Cornell Educational Programs and Interdisciplinary Research Group
If you had not gone to the science camp, would you still be interested in science? What else do you think you would have done?

I’ve always been interested in the details of things so I would probably have been on the technical side in any job. My first job out of college was with a software company and I worked on computer architectures and memory leaks and other really complicated (and really nerdy) things. There is something very interesting about knowing how a computer works from the keyboard all the way down to how the electrons are transferred around the silicon materials.

How hard was it to get to your current position?
The selection process really narrows down the field for the professor position. Typically 200 or 300 people apply and only 1 will get hired. That’s less than 1%

Are you the only scientist in your family?
Yes. My parents are both public high school teachers.

Q: Roy Wolford

I am an author concerning how something from nothing is possible. It involves the process of forming mass from charge.

Infinite positive field charge potential, Zero Point Energy, and infinite negative field charge potential known as The Wolford Centres, attempting to occupy all of space but prevented from doing so by the factors concerning polarity and adjacency. Attracting and repelling activate spin.

A: Rich Robinson

Interesting. You are way over my head!

Q: Len

Whats the possibility of having solar panels installed on all the homes and buildings in the US to relieve the pressure on the electric companies to improve delivery of these services and cut back on the use of oil.

A: Rich Robinson

You should check out what Nate Lewis has to say , the Cornell Center for Sustainable Futures , and the helios project from Berkeley.