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Past Winner
2002 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Wolfgang Jäger


University of Alberta

Wolfgang Jäger asks the kind of questions about the world that parents sometimes get from young children. Bedevillingly simple-sounding questions that probe at nature's essence. For example, how do you make water?

What separates the University of Alberta spectroscopist from most inquisitive big thinkers is that he's spent much of the last decade looking for an answer. Dr. Jäger built a state-of-the-art machine to study the subtle atomic-level dance between molecules that, for instance, transforms a gas into a liquid, and a group of atoms into an intricately folded life-giving protein.

It's pioneering experimentation at the borderlands of chemistry and physics for which Dr. Jäger is being awarded a 2002 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship - one of Canada's premier science and engineering prizes.

"It's a very long path from the microscopic properties of a water molecule to the macroscopic properties of the bulk phase," Dr. Jäger says. "We're looking for the bridge between microscopic properties and macroscopic ones. And these changes occur because of molecular interactions."

The weak molecular interactions he studies are known as van der Waals forces. Getting a handle on these attractive forces between groups of atoms is like trying to overhear a whispered conversation in a crowded gym while you're standing far away. Yet it's the conversation that's keeping everyone there.

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Jäger and his research team spent nearly a year building what's known as a Fourier transform microwave spectrometer. It took another year to add a powerful terahertz radiation source.

This high-tech, fridge-sized apparatus enables the researchers to carefully create small molecular clusters that often include helium atoms. These are hit with a microwave beam and the resultant spectral ("energy") emissions yield information about the rotation of the molecules in relation to one another.

"We need quantum mechanics to understand the spectral data," says Dr. Jäger. "You're really at the very fundamental level of chemistry and physics when you're doing this kind of spectroscopy. It's something radically different from the world we know."

Teasing understanding from the spectroscopic data requires high-powered number crunching. This year, Dr. Jäger's lab acquired a Beowulf cluster - 20 linked PCs, that with all their computing power still require 15 hours to calculate a single potential energy point of the up to 2,000 that are required to create an image from the experimental data.

With his Steacie Fellowship, Dr. Jäger will extend his research into the nascent field of helium nanodroplet isolation spectroscopy.

He'll be leading the construction of a new machine - the first of its kind in Canada and one of only a few in the world - that will allow the researchers to trap molecules in super-fluid helium droplets and to analyze them inside this "ultra-cold nano-laboratory."

Operating at 0.38 Kelvin - close to what is the total absence of heat - this new spectroscopic technique will allow for the study of larger clusters of molecules, providing insight into processes that occur in solution.

For Dr. Jäger, it will be one step closer on the quantum path between single molecules and what we simply call water.