How Does It Work?

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Prof. Ron Naaman: From the orchard to the laboratory


"Once, a curious child could open up any device to find an answer to the question: 'How does it work?'" says Prof. Ron Naaman of the Weizmann Institute's Chemical Physics Department. "Today, this channel of learning is shut off ? a child opening a radio or a watch will find a system too complex to understand."
Born in Hadera, Israel, to two "educators," (his father was the founder of the Youth Division in the Municipality of Beersheba, his mother a teacher), Naaman, for his part, is on a number of government educational committees. He has been mentor to a high school program on the interaction of light and matter, which is based on learning science through the questions that spark youthful curiosity. In addition, he has recently proposed a program to double the percentage of high school students completing their matriculation exams.
Naaman took apart quite a few radios himself as a child. But simple, clear-cut answers were not what drew him to science. His interest in chemistry was propelled by an attraction to the unknown: "What I liked about chemistry was its ambiguity. Unlike physics, whose laws were presented to us in high school as 'the final answers', chemistry was always explained with a touch of confusion."
Thus it is not surprising that Naaman's research focuses on equivocal behavior in molecules. He is analyzing how the behavior of molecules and particles changes in a "social" setting, i.e., when they are situated in a group. "From the outset of my academic career, I looked for instances in which the interaction between the molecules seemed weak yet its influence was immense," says Naaman. For instance, to break down one molecule of water, you need a certain amount of energy. But take two molecules of water that barely touch each other, and the interaction between them, though seemingly negligible, will greatly affect the amount of energy needed to break them down.
Unforeseen by Naaman, one of the primary concerns of modern technology would in time converge with his interest in the ambiguous behavior of weak bonds. By analyzing how reactions in groups of organic molecules influence the passage of an electronic charge, Naaman is contributing to the search for alternative ways to construct computer chips. Using organic molecules as switches (conducting or obstructing electricity) would greatly miniaturize today's computer chips and make them less error-prone.
Naaman is also beginning to integrate biological research into his work by examining how reactions within DNA molecules can affect the passage of an electronic charge. "The combination of chemistry, physics, and biology characterizing this study is enabled by the high level of interaction among research groups in the Institute," says Naaman.
Just as Naaman's didactic leanings reflect his parents' inclinations, so his children, in turn, have acquired his insatiable curiosity. Two of his daughters are studying for a master's degree at the Weizmann Institute -- one in biology, the other in physics. "Two important traits in life are curiosity and the courage to follow one's curiosity. Fortunately, my four children possess these traits, so I will be happy with anything they choose to do in life."