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UEA researcher's 'impossible theory' is proved – 40 years after he proposed it

PUBLISHED: 16:58 06 February 2019 | UPDATED: 16:58 06 February 2019

Prof David Andrews (left), of UEA's School of Chemistry, and Dr Ventsislav Valev, who leads the research group in the Department of Physics at the University of Bath. Dr Valav has proven a physics theory Prof Andrews devised at UEA in the 1970s. Picture: UEA

Prof David Andrews (left), of UEA's School of Chemistry, and Dr Ventsislav Valev, who leads the research group in the Department of Physics at the University of Bath. Dr Valav has proven a physics theory Prof Andrews devised at UEA in the 1970s. Picture: UEA

UEA

For many scientists, finding a real-world use for your hard-fought theories is an ultimate goal.

And one University of East Anglia (UEA) researcher has finally had that satisfaction – 40 years after first proposing his theory.

Prof David Andrews published his theory in his first few weeks at the Norwich university in 1979 – but he said that at the time, a real-world application for his work “could never have been imagined”.

The technique, which precisely measure the twist, or chirality, of molecules using lasers, has proven to be 100,000 more sensitive than current standard methods – which have changed little in the past 200 years.

However, after four decades of tries and failures by scientists around the world, researchers much closer to home have confirmed the physical effect of his theoretical predictions.

The research team at the University of Bath used a physical effect – the colour-changing of light scattered from chiral molecules – to measure the twist present, confirming Prof Andrews’ theory.

Molecules can exist in left or right “handed” forms depending on how they twist in three dimensions. Many molecules essential to life, including DNA, amino acids and proteins, exhibit chirality and the “handedness” can change their function or properties.

Dr Ventsislav Valev, who leads the research group in the Department of Physics at the University of Bath, said his team began thinking about the problem 13 years ago and has worked with scientific colleagues in Germany and Belgium on the experiments.

“We’ve demonstrated a new physical effect – you don’t get to say that every day. This is exactly why I got into science,” he said.

“It’s taken 40 years, people have been looking for this without success, and not for lack of trying. It’s amazing. The theory was quite controversial, people thought that maybe the effect was impossible to observe.”

Prof Andrews, from UEA’s School of Chemistry, said: “Dr Valev’s pioneering work is a clever and highly significant achievement, for he has realised a kind of application that could never have been imagined when the theory was first laid, 40 years ago.

“His results serve as an encouragement to all pure theorists.”

The research was funded by The Royal Society, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) and the paper has been published in Physical Review today (Wednesday).

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