L I B R A Volume 8 No. 2, November 2000

Faculty Interview Raśl Baragiola: Always Looking for Questions

Jim Shea, Physics Library (jms7n@virginia.edu)

"Many people think of physics simply as a subject matter, but it is important to see that it is a method as well," says Raśl Baragiola, professor of engineering physics and materials science and director of U.Va.'s Laboratory for Atomic and Surface Physics.

"The heart of the method is to define a problem in terms of its simplest elements, then to 'build up' to get a whole picture. Physicists are above all else model-makers and that is why the method of physics has application in many areas beyond the subject matter itself, even in domains outside of science."

"The trick is to simplify with minimal distortion."

Baragiola, who came to the University in 1990, has applied "the method" across a broad range of scientific problems for three decades, producing some 160 publications in the process

Some projects have almost immediate practical applications, like a current study of electron emissions from insulators aimed at producing efficient flat plasma display panels that would replace television tubes. But Baragiola doesn't equate immediate applicability with practicality: "I believe it was Aristotle who said that nothing is more practical than a good theory. The most likely 'application' of our studies of plasmon waves in various metals is that these studies will throw light on a range of problems in basic condensed matter physics."

Among the other projects currently underway in his lab are two which "reach" far into space.

One experiment simulates the effects of solar radiation on asteroids, studying the chemical alterations of their surfaces. "Hours of irradiation in the laboratory are equivalent to thousands of years in space," Baragiola observes. Other experiments simulate the impact of ions of Jupiter's magnetosphere on the surface of the icy Galilean satellites of the planet. This simulation allows Baragiola's group to study the consequent decomposition of water and the formation of an atmosphere around the satellites.

Baragiola and his research group also study the physical properties of "water ice" at extremely low temperatures, trying to understand the growth of frost and what makes ice porous. This study could influence materials and methods used in such extreme terrestrial environments as Antarctica.

Baragiola's group also operates the Surface Science Center, providing surface analysis to other researchers at U.Va. and at other universities, national laboratories, and industrial research groups.

Baragiola describes himself as "someone who is always looking for questions. For me, the most fascinating stage is the very first, when an idea begins to take shape, when the elements of a problem are first discovered."

"But this is precisely the phase of research for which it is impossible to find grant support," he observes. Funding sources want a well-developed proposal, not a "fertile idea" which requires further study before a proposal can be generated.

"This is why I hope that the University will develop as a component of President Casteen's long-range plans for the sciences, a pool of seed money to support this crucial first phase," he says. "After all, a university is a place dedicated to the stimulation of thought and new ideas. Shouldn't we support this kind of activity, to promote creativity in advanced research?"

Baragiola regularly browses only a few journals these days, depending on alert services to keep up with the various scientific topics that relate to his research. "Essential library services," in his view, include electronic access to full-text journal articles, INSPEC database, the citation-searching capability of Web of Science, and LEO.

Baragiola's "library wish-list" is topped by the hope that the Web of Science holdings might be pushed back from 1987 to 1970 and that the library will continue aggressively to expand access to full-text journal material.

photo caption - Raśl Baragiola in his lab.

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