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Research & Innovation

Visit the lab pushing Nobel work to the next level

Professor Lou DiMauro, who oversees the day-to-day for the research group he and laureate Pierre Agostini lead, invites you to peek inside. Watch out for the lasers. 

Lou DiMauro and Yaguo Tang open a black box almost as long as they are tall. It sits about stomach height. Inside are mirrors and compartments that manipulate a laser beam when it’s shot into the box. When that happens, the box would not be open like this.
A bobble head doll of Albert Einstein sits next to a basketball signed by Lou DiMauro's old co-workers before he came to Ohio State. They're on top of a shelf, next to a stack of tea and crayons.

On top of one of DiMauro’s office cabinets sit a basketball signed by former colleagues and an Einstein bobblehead doll.

At its most basic, a chunk of what the Agostini-DiMauro group does is shoot lasers into vacuum tubes to reveal how energy and matter work. Physicists call the process harmonics, and the lasers provide the attosecond light pulses. The goal is pure knowledge.

“I think I also speak for Pierre when I say we’re less interested in the applications, although the applications are important,” DiMauro says. The Department of Energy, National Science Foundation and Air Force agree. They’re some of the group’s biggest funders.

Just as Agostini’s Nobel-winning work enabled the research being done at Ohio State and around the world today, DiMauro wants his team’s work to empower the future.

“The quantum computer is a perfect example,” he says. “Things that we now understand very well — quantum mechanics — people are taking those fundamental physics and turning it into a machine that looks like your desktop computer but holds far more power and promise.”

One Friday last month, DiMauro opened the doors of his home and lab to us.

Ohio State Professor Lou DiMauro completes an online crossword puzzle in his home office. Hanging on the walls are jazz and sports photos and a nearby chair has a pillow with a picture of a dog on it. Lou focuses on his screen, leaning slightly toward it.

8 a.m. I have coffee and half a bagel and play The New York Times’ mini crossword puzzle and Wordle. Then I start work. I’m not teaching classes this semester, which worked out well considering Pierre’s Nobel, but I’m so busy it’s hard to find time to drive to campus.

9 a.m. I join a Zoom call with Pierre, who’s in Paris most of the year, and Jessi Middleton ’11, our office administrator. We discuss who Pierre will invite to Nobel events in Stockholm, where Ohio State is planning a celebration. It’s important for the university to be there because this audience should know us.

10 a.m. I pause work to feed our Italian greyhound, Pepper.

11:15 a.m. I drive to campus and arrive at the Physics Research Building. In my office, I get ready for Journal Club, when my group and Pierre meet with Associate Professor Alexandra “Sasha” Landsman’s Ultrafast Laser-Matter Interactions Group to talk about research, the latest in our field and our own. Our groups are interested in similar things, but she focuses more on the theory side.

11:30 a.m. Pierre joins on Zoom as we’re working out some problems with the conference room audio. ”This is what 18 physicists do all day,” I tell him, which gets a laugh from the students.

Lou and students Dan Tuthill, Abdallah AlShafey and Yaguo Tang get a laugh as Pierre Agostini joins their meeting from Zoom, and they can’t get the room sound to work.

11:45 a.m. Postdoc Abdallah AlShafey ’22 MS, ’23 PhD, from Sasha’s team, summarizes a paper he researched about harmonics in crystals. There’s high interest in this right now. He references another paper, done here in 2011, that’s gotten lots of citations. That’s what we want. It’s no fun if our colleagues and competitors don’t take notice.

Abdallah AlShafey looks toward his slide presentation on a screen as he explains a point about the research he’s summarizing. Out of focus in the background, fellow students sit at conference tables listening attentively.

Noon Postdoc Sha Li, who goes by Lisa, is the person on my team experimenting in this. She asks good questions and shares what she’s observed.

Post Doc Sha Li, who goes by Lisa, gestures as she asks a question during a meeting. She wears a plaid shirt and has her hair back in a ponytail while looking directly at the speaker with a slight smile as she talks. Nest to her is another Chinese student who watches her contemplatively.

12:15 p.m. We work through lunch — my usual. Back at Brookhaven, I played basketball on my break and fell out of the habit of eating.

12:25 p.m. Grad student Eric Moore, from my team, presents next. While Lisa works in solids, Eric and postdoc Tahereh Alavi are experimenting in liquid, the least explored state of matter. That’s because it’s disordered: If you think about how the liquid sloshes when you shake your water bottle, that means the atoms are constantly reconfiguring, too.

Nobel Prize winner Pierre Agostini talks on Zoom during a meeting of the research group he leads with Lou DiMauro and one led by Sasha Landsman.

12:55 p.m. Eric and Tahereh are seeing electrons behave in unexpected ways, so the group raises questions and tosses out ideas about why that might be. It’s valuable. If our research is thoroughly challenged and thought out, it stands up better when published.

1:10 p.m. Today is the birthday of PhD student Dan Tuthill ’19 so we all meet for donuts in my students’ office. We discuss candy in different countries — we’re a diverse bunch with people from China, Mexico, Iran as well as the U.S. And then, I don’t know why, we get to talking about Taco Bell.

1:30 p.m. I return to my office and check my and Pierre’s email inboxes in case any need urgent responses. It’s a light day in our lab, and I go visit students next. They’re the reason I’m still doing this at 70.

[Editor’s note for readers on a laptop or desktop computer not using a mouse to scroll: To navigate this next series of three photos, a secondary scroll bar will appear on the right.]

 Lou DiMauro and Yaguo Tang talk in front of the Quantum Trajectory Selector Yagou works with. Plastic tubes swarm in front of the metal portion, which is several metal-cylinder-style components connected by smaller metal tubes.

1:45 p.m. With postdoc Yaguo Tang, we prioritize what he’ll do next week, when it’s his turn with the laser.

Both wearing safety goggles, Lou DiMauro and Yaguo Tang talk about a Quantum Trajectory Selector, which is the apparatus that lets them shoot lasers into gas to track electrons. Metal canisters and plastic tubes can be seen.

His work on our Quantum Trajectory Selector has been essential to an experiment method we developed that I expect to open new possibilities in our field.

Three computer screens illustrate the results of the quantum selector experiments--specifically, how electrons reacted to light pulses. The screens show colorful line graphs and spectral analyses.

We’re aiming to get the study published in Nature.

Huge flat machines sit on tables surrounded by transparent plastic. These machines, which look like metal boxes, produce the laser beams that are sent into two adjacent labs for experiements.

Lisa is out of focus in the background as she holds a round took holding the crystal inside of which she studies electrons. It looks like a flat piece of metal mounted on a disc.

2:15 p.m. Our lab is three rooms — the two on the ends have multiple attosecond apparatuses and the computers where we track results. The room connecting them has the lasers. (It’s shown above with the blue plastic.)

Lisa is the only one who experiments inside the laser room. She’s showing the tool she mounts the crystal on.

2:25 p.m. These guys are Zifan Wang ’22 MS and Dan, who is defending his thesis in two weeks. He’s taking a job as a data scientist at a bank and gets a laugh when I joke that he’s becoming a banker.

The pair have an atto-chemistry focus and are making those “movies,” which aren’t really the kind you could go watch in a cinema because the things we’re interested in are too tiny to be seen.

Two young men wearing blue shirts chat as they look at part of a machine that is mostly out of focus. They’re lab partners and both wear safety goggles.

2:40 p.m. Yaguo, Tahereh and I look at experiment data.

Three people—a professor and two of his students—look at a screen displaying colors and graphs that reflect how electrons moved in their experiments.

2:50 p.m. Back in my office, I recheck email — 50 for Pierre came in since noon.

3:15 p.m. This is the middle of proposal season, and I’ve been writing to the NSF for more support of the National Extreme Ultrafast Science Facility (NeXUS), an ultrafast-laser lab that is close to being operational in the chemistry building (CBEC) next door, but that’s out for review.

So today I’ll work on a plan for AccelNet, a network of networks with partners in Michigan, Arizona, New York, Europe and Canada. It’s organizational, not science like most of my grants, but it’s important and the base will be here. With this, the Nobel and NeXUS, with Sasha and my work, Ohio State is reaching critical mass.

4 p.m. Usually on Fridays at this time, I Zoom with Andrew Piper ’17 MS, ’22 PhD, who has graduated and is working at the only publicly traded quantum computing company. He is the lead writer for the study Yaguo worked on, but his paper is out right now for collaborators to read, so I keep going on the AccelNet implementation plan.

Professor Lou, wearing his vest-jacket and glasses, works on his computer at his desk in his office, where shelves brim with books and mementos.

5:30 p.m. I knock off a couple hours early because Mike Chini, who is joining the faculty with his wife, Jackie Chini, drops by to tell me about the house they’re putting an offer on. We head out for a drink at the Blackwell Inn before I return home and call it a night.

Two men walk up a sidewalk while leaving the physics building. One is shorter and carries a backpack over one shoulder, this is Lou. The other is taller and has his backpack on both shoulders. The day looks sunny but they’re wearing jackets and sweaters.
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