Contact: Whitney Richter, Director of Marketing and Communications, Office of the Vice Provost for Research, 254-710-7539
Written by: Gary Stokes, Office of the Vice Provost for Research
WACO, Texas (May 2, 2019) – Someday, in the not-too-distant-future, an Iowa farmer strolls out of his home to see a small drone methodically roving high above his sprawling corn crop. The farmer then dons an augmented reality headset to view the overhead image of his crop supplied by the drone. With sweeps of his hand and finger-taps in the air, he tags several small colored blotches superimposed over the spectroscopic image of his field like a weather-radar display. The GPS coordinates for each blotch appear on the image. “Hmm, better get those plants a drink,” he says to himself. “They're looking a little dry.” Again, using a hand gesture, he summons a gangly water tanker and dispatches it to the thirsty plants and returns to the house for breakfast. In another application of his research he is studying new ways to detect black mold.
Science fiction? At this point, yes, but such systems may be a reality soon, thanks in large part to the work of Dr. Marlan O. Scully in the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative’s Quantum Optics Laboratory.
Dr. Scully joined Baylor University in 2011 as Distinguished Academician of Science and Engineering, having received virtually every award relevant to his field. Elected in 2016 as a Foreign Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Scully was previously elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Academia Europaea, the National Academy of Inventors, the Max Planck Society, and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Besides his Baylor appointment, he holds concurrent positions at Princeton University and Texas A&M University, where he directs Texas A&M’s Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering, Center for Theoretical Physics and is Distinguished Professor and holder of the Herschel Burgess Chair in the department of physics.
A Casper, Wyoming, native, he completed his graduate studies at Yale under Dr. Willis Lamb, winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize in physics. With that academic pedigree, Scully was well prepared to carry the developing technology of lasers into the enigmatic underworld of quantum mechanics.
To determine the condition of crops and ornamental plants in his lab, Scully uses a technique called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, or LIBS. LIBS itself isn’t new, but adapting LIBS for use in a crop monitoring system reliable and robust enough to be practical in a field setting certainly is new.
The key to LIBS is a powerful, titanium-sapphire laser that does its work with pulses of light measured in femtoseconds – quadrillionths of a second. For scale, there are as many femtoseconds in one second as there are seconds in 32 million years. Scully uses the extremely short laser bursts to burn a small area of a test plant, producing a plasma plume. Scully’s team then uses a compact, off-the-shelf spectroscope to identify traces of elements in the plume.
“The extremely short duration of laser pulses is very important in this application,” Scully explains. “If the pulse is too long the plasma starts interacting with the [laser] light and that interferes with our ability to accurately determine what’s in the plasma. It also causes more damage to the plant.”
Through painstaking experiments on wheat and gardenia plants, Scully’s researchers found that different degrees of drought-induced stress caused certain elements — calcium, phosphorous, nitrogen, sodium and iron among them — to be present in the plasma in varying concentrations. Sodium in particular proved to be a very reliable marker of drought stress.
Though the crop monitoring system imagined in the introduction might be a decade or more from becoming practical, Scully’s impeccable credentials as a theoretician coupled with his uncanny knack for tackling fundamental research that also has potential for near-term practical application has attracted many of the brightest and most celebrated minds — including Nobel laureates — from other universities and the world of science to work with him both at his Quantum Optics Laboratory at Baylor and at his labs at Texas A&M and Princeton.
Not only does Scully enjoy research partnerships with accomplished scientists, he relishes adding momentum to the careers of promising junior faculty. Dr. Zhenrong Zhang is an associate professor of physics at Baylor who, thanks to a collaboration with Scully, has been able to expand her research into nanoscale quantum-optic sensing.
“Dr. Scully committed his funding to jump start this new collaborative project,” Zhang says. “He has supported the necessary upgrade of my research apparatus — a scanning tunneling microscope — to combine with his state-of-the-art Raman microscopy.” Early findings from Zhang’s work recently resulted in a sizeable National Science Foundation grant.
Dr. Howard Lee is another Baylor assistant professor in physics who is getting a career boost from Scully. In addition to his research in Scully’s lab in the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative, Lee received an appointment as a Fellow and visiting professor at Texas A&M’s Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering, which Scully heads.
“[Dr. Scully] is really a role model for me,” said Lee. “Whenever I talked to people in optics, they all knew him, even my advisor at Cal Tech. Many of his friends are Nobel Prize winners, and you can see his influence as a scientist. Another way he is a role model is, if you look at him, he is seventy-something and is still active in science, still able to have many new ideas, and of course, for me, to be very supportive of younger faculty.” Lee credits Scully’s support for his access to lasers and instrumentation required to win funding for his research.
Scully’s intellectual energies are as strong as ever in his passion for science and the quantum world specifically. However, among the over 700 publications to his credit are also acclaimed writings in philosophy, religion, and theology.
Scully is an ardent Christian whose devotion to faith and family underpins all his work. “My best friend and collaborator is my wife,” he says of Judith Bailey Scully, with whom he raised three sons. “And one thing that I do always try to emphasize to my students is that our presence here on Earth is a gift. Science and the spiritual side of the universe are two sides of the same coin; I think that bears repeating and we should always keep it in mind.”
Scully is hopeful about the future of his work. “These same quantum tricks are only now being applied to biology and biological systems for the first time, enabling us to monitor cancer growth, spot a virus and identify different bacteria. These are perhaps the most important [developments] from the perspective of short-term impact and spinoffs [of his work] that will benefit mankind.”
Most recently, he and his friends, e.g., Baylor Professor Anzhong Wang, are working on a different perspective on Hawking – Unruh black hole radiation. In fact, on any given weekend, black hole hero Bill Unruh (FRS and visiting TAMU Institute for Advanced Studies Fellow) and Scully might be found hiking on the Salter Research Farm and talking about quantum mechanics. From black mold to black holes, the Baylor – Salter research group is pushing the frontiers!
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 17,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.
ABOUT THE CENTER FOR ASTROPHYSICS, SPACE PHYSICS AND ENGINEERING RESEARCH (CASPER)
The Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics and Engineering Research (CASPER) is a stand-alone research center located at Baylor University. CASPER teams conduct research in a number of theoretical and experimental areas and offer both basic research as well as engineering and design opportunities for graduate, undergraduate, technical support and high school students as well as grade school, middle school and high school teachers. For more information, visit www.baylor.edu/CASPER.
ABOUT BAYLOR COLLEGE OF ARTS & SCIENCES
The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University's oldest and largest academic division, consisting of 25 academic departments and seven academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines. Visit www.baylor.edu/artsandsciences.
ABOUT THE OFFICE OF THE VICE PROVOST FOR RESEARCH
The Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR) assists faculty members from all academic units in identifying, obtaining and managing the funding needed to support their research and scholarship. Internal 'seed' funding, matching grant proposal funding, searchable online funding databases, grant writing seminars, proposal support and trave awards to national funding agencies are only a portion of what is provided by the various units comprising the OVPR. Additionally, the Vice Provost for Research oversees the ethical conduct of research and assists researchers in maintaining compliance with applicable policies, laws and regulations as well as providing support in establishing interdisciplinary / international collaborations and industry partnerships.
The OVPR acts as Baylor's representative in pursuing partnerships and collaborative agreements with entities outside the university. The office negotiates sponsored research agreements with industry on behalf of faculty and pursues research, technology transfer and the commercialization of technology. The OVPR welcomes the opportunity to discuss collaborative research and scholarship pursuits that can advance the academic mission of Baylor University to achieve R1/T1 status.
The OVPR also manages and operates the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative (BRIC), a three-story, 330,000-square-foot facility focused on interdisciplinary/international research, industry/university collaborations, business incubation/acceleration/commercialization, advanced workforce training and STEM educational research and outreach.