Gerbode Lab

soft matter physics at harvey mudd college

Research

Colloids

Colloidal suspensions are thermal systems consisting of solid Brownian particles suspended in a liquid solvent. The colloidal particles can be large – on the scale of one micron –  making them big and slow enough to observe with an optical microscope. As such, colloids offer a truly unique opportunity to actually watch the time evolution of a thermodynamic system, particle by particle. This unprecedented window into the configurations and dynamics of thermal particles has revealed an intimate view of both equilibrium and nonequilibrium phases formed by ensembles of colloidal particles. Results obtained from experiments on colloidal systems have been used to probe unanswered questions in analogous atomic or molecular systems whose constituents are made inaccessible by both size and speed.

Plant Biomechanics

Plants actuate complex motions that are often overlooked because of their slow speeds.  Charles Darwin was so fascinated by plants that he painstakingly measured their positions over hours and days to study their motions.  Modern time-lapse imaging simplifies such studies immensely and has opened up a new arena for investigating plant deformations.  Exciting recent studies in plant biomechanics have demonstrated that plants actuate motion by controlling water content within their complexly structured tissues – sometimes via passive hygroscopic swelling in response to ambient environmental changes .  Such passive mechanisms for generating motion suggest new engineering principles that could allow us to harness energy from environmental sources like daily humidity and temperature cycles.  This nascent field in soft matter physics has already provided inspiration for novel products such as Lotus-Effect© and promises to offer numerous other new directions for technology and engineering applications.