From bird feathers that allow for perfectly efficient flight to the bacterial enzyme that fixes nitrogen to help plants grow, nature has had a lot of time to figure things out. “There are so many things we need to be learning how to do from nature, because our methods are still much inferior to those!” says UW–Madison’s newest physics professor, Uwe Bergmann, the Martin L. Perl Professor in Ultrafast X-ray Science. “I think we are going in this direction of learning more and more from nature and using this knowledge to run our world sustainably, but still in a modern way. And that theme brings physicists and many other domains together.”
Bergmann is a physicist who develops and applies x-ray techniques to chemical, biological, engineering, and even archaeological research questions, trying to understand at the atomic level what nature has perfected over a few billion years. Prior to joining the Department on December 1, Bergmann was a Scientist at SLAC. Here, he will focus his research program on continuing to develop and apply novel x-ray techniques. To welcome Bergmann, we sat down for a (virtual) interview.
What is an overview of your research?
My research is developing and applying x-ray methods to solve problems. And these problems can be uncovering hidden writings in ancient books or the chemical elements buried in fossils to reveal the color in the original animal; studying photosynthetic water splitting to understanding the structure of liquid water; and making movies of a molecule carrying out specific work.
What techniques do you use in your research?
I use mainly x-ray techniques, and we do x-ray spectroscopy and sometimes also x-ray scattering and diffraction. The basic difference is that diffraction and scattering looks at the geometric structure — where are the atoms? — and spectroscopy looks at the chemical structure — where are the electrons? Recently we have been using powerful new x-ray lasers, where you can make ultrafast movies showing how chemical bonds are changing in real time. I also use x-ray fluorescence, which is a very powerful imaging technique for creating elemental maps showing the chemical composition of fossils for example.
Once your lab is up and running in Madison, what big projects will you focus on first?
I want to set up a new ultrafast x-UV laser system, able to making these molecular movies with femtosecond resolution. We want to make movies of fast chemical reactions and structural changes; when you expose a material to a light pulse and then watch how the atoms and electrons rearrange after the pulse. This is important for the next generation of advanced materials and a famous example is the water splitting reaction in plants to make O2. We still do not exactly know the mechanism of how these two water molecules are brought in, split up, and forced to make the bond to form O2.
In our latest project with x-ray fluorescence imaging we have scanned more than 50 pages of an ancient parchment book containing the work of the famous Greek physician, Galen of Pergamon. This so-called palimpsest contains a Syriac translation with his work including ‘On Simple Drugs’, which had been erased and overwritten with hymns in the Middle Ages, and catalogued as a new find at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in 1975. Scholars are interested in this translation as it gives information of how Galen’s work originally written in Greek spread east, were it became very popular in the Arab world. Using powerful synchrotron x-rays, we found that you can actually bring out this erased and overwritten text. And scholars can now read it! Key to this success was our new scanning system that records the whole x-ray fluorescence spectrum at each pixel of the image, and our collaborators’ ability to apply advanced machine learning algorithms to enhance the faint traces of overwritten text.
Another exciting project we are working on is an x-ray laser oscillator. There are currently five very big hard x-ray free electron lasers around the world, but they operate in a single pass, which means they are not very stable. Our idea is to use a train of pulses from one of these big x-ray lasers — those are the not-so-clean pulses — to pump our gain medium. After the first pulse creates amplified spontaneous emission, we guide the emitted beam through a cavity made of four mirrors back to the same gain medium to meet up with the next pump pulse from the train. Doing this again and again and again, lets us crank up the beam until we have a perfect, clean and stable x-ray laser pulse, and at the point we will send it out of the cavity. This is similar to how most optical lasers work. We described the idea in PNAS earlier this year, and now we have a lot of work ahead to turn it into reality.
What attracted you to UW–Madison?
For some time, I have been thinking whether it would be possible one day to combine my research activities with teaching at a university. The ultrafast x-ray science chair in the Physics Department was a perfect opportunity and an excellent fit to the research I have been pursuing my entire career. Still, it wasn’t until my visit to Madison, experiencing the wonderful interaction with the students, faculty and staff, and feeling the energy on this beautiful campus, that I fell in love with the idea of joining UW–Madison.
What is your favorite element and/or elementary particle?
Manganese is my favorite element, just because I have been spending so many years studying it and it has so many amazing properties. It’s chemically very important as it has all these different oxidation states, ranging from +2 to +7. And it’s at the heart of the tiny little machine driven by sun light that nature uses to split water into oxygen, which I think is the most important reaction on the planet. Without that reaction there would only be primitive bacterial life on earth. For the elementary particle, I feel almost ashamed but of course it has to be the electron, because it does all the work. Nuclei hardly notice any chemical change, but electrons do all the bonding, all the rearrangements that make the world run; they are the worker bees of nature.
What hobbies/other interests do you have?
I love nature, animals, music, and outdoor activities, especially in and around water.