Description of the five research communities (RC) Physics

The NWO research communities work with members in order to have a clear picture of the sub-field in question and to have at their disposal a distribution list for consulting or informing the field.

RC1. Nano, Quantum and Materials Physics

Fields covered
The NQMP committee oversees research on the physics of matter and its interactions with electromagnetic fields, from the nano (atomic and molecular) all the way up to the macro (solids and materials) scale. It brings together the traditional fields of atomic, molecular and optical physics, hard condensed matter and materials physics and nanoscience. These fields share the common feature that the relevant physical interactions occur at the nanoscale (1-100 nm), and are best described in the framework of quantum mechanics.

Big questions
NQMP research is mainly aimed at the understanding of individual properties of atoms and molecules, their interactions with other atoms, molecules and interfaces, and how these interactions lead to the emergence of collective properties in molecules and solids. This understanding is further translated into the design and investigation of materials and devices exhibiting new functionalities potentially relevant for practical applications.

Methods and instrumentation
The research is based on the combination of theoretical and computational methods, atomic and structural imaging, spectroscopy, nanofabrication and nano-assembly methods, and the investigation of the mechanical, electrical, magnetic and optical properties of materials and devices.

Connection to other NWO disciplines and domains
While rooted in physics, NQMP has strong interdisciplinary aspects bridging the gap to other disciplines within the ENW domain and beyond. These links at the moment only partly exist and should be strengthened. For example, unraveling the precise nature of inter- and intramolecular interactions, as well as the synthesis and characterisation of new molecules and materials and the study of surface processes and catalysis are areas at the boundary with chemistry. In the context of information processing, NQMP-based hardware is strongly linked to software (quantum algorithms, artificial intelligence) under development within computer science and mathematics. As NQMP research has the potential to generate disruptive new technologies, an effective collaboration with the TTW domain is essential for their transfer and further development. Finally, these technologies must find their way into society, bringing interesting collaboration opportunities with the ZonMw and SGW domains.

Contribution to societal challenges, key enabling technologies and broad research themes
The strong link between fundamental research on atoms, molecules, materials and systems and their application, for example in electronics and photonics, is made even more compelling by the present industrial and societal challenges:

  • The ongoing energy transition, requiring new paradigms, materials and devices for energy production, storage and conversion;
  • The transition towards a digital society, with the ever-growing demand for connectivity and computing power, calling for an improved understanding of materials and devices at the atomic scale, new materials and new approaches to low-energy computing, communication and sensing
  • The emergence of new paradigms for computing (quantum information processing, neuromorphic computing), calling for novel materials, devices and/or quantum correlated atomic or molecular systems with radically new properties
  • The development of advanced detection and characterisation methods for molecules and materials, with potential for spinoff applications in technology and health as well as astrochemistry (the origin of life) and metrology.

RC2. Particle and Astroparticle Physics

Fields covered
The field of Particle and Astroparticle Physics comprises theoretical and experimental research on fundamental building blocks of matter and the structure of space and time itself. It aims to advance our understanding of the fundamental Laws of Nature for all elementary constituents of matter, their structure and their mutual interactions.

The field of Particle and Astroparticle Physics has experimental and theoretical components. The experimental activities, predominantly at Nikhef, center around subatomic Particle and Astroparticle Physics. The former include high-energy and high intensity collider physics, notably performed at CERN at the Large Hadron Collider, where the Netherlands are involved in the ATLAS, LHCb and ALICE experiments. In the coming years major upgrades of both the LHC machine and the LHC experiments are envisaged to increase the event rate by an order of magnitude, to further boost the LHC discovery potential. These upgrades are essential to assess the intricacies of the Higgs mechanism and to maximise the reach for the discovery of new particles (ATLAS); to reach the ultimate precision in specific b-quark systems (LHCb), and to expose the collective dynamics of quarks and gluons in extreme conditions (ALICE). The sensitivity frontier is further probed through low-energetic ultra-high precision measurements of the electric dipole moment of the electron. Through Leiden University, the Netherlands is also involved in the SHiP collaboration at CERN, aiming to construct a new generation intensity frontier experiment.

Current Astroparticle physics activities, the second pillar of Nikhef (in combination with the Committee for Astroparticle physics in the Netherlands), focus on multi-messenger observation of the Universe, and gained an enormous boost with the discovery of Gravitational Waves from coalescing Black Holes and Neutron Stars (Virgo) with a high scientific potential at the future third generation infrastructure (Einstein Telescope). The Nikhef strategy explicitly states the vision to investigate the possibility to host Einstein Telescope in the Netherlands. The multi-messenger approach is complemented by the observation and understanding of cosmic neutrino’s (KM3NeT), direct searches for Dark Matter (XENON) and searches for signatures of dark matter particles in X-ray and gamma-ray data; and high energy cosmic rays (Pierre Auger).

The theoretical activities involve a wider community with several more universities and university groups. They are organised within the Dutch Research School of Theoretical Physics, the Delta Institute for Theoretical Physics, as well as Nikhef, which ensures close connections with experimental progress. This theoretical research covers the disciplines of theoretical high energy physics, particle physics phenomenology, quantum and classical gravity, string theory, black holes and cosmology. It spans the full range of topics from the earliest tractable times of our universe, its origin within quantum gravity/string theory and the inflationary era to connect with Standard Big Bang Cosmology and the distribution of Large Scale Structure, to the fundamental observational puzzles of baryogenesis, neutrino masses, dark matter and dark energy. It operates in a world class environment with strong overlaps amongst each other, and many of them have connections to other disciplines such as astronomy, condensed matter theory, mathematics, computing and (quantum) information theory. A common feature of these research efforts is that they search for the fundamental laws unifying the smallest distance scales of the quantum world with the largest gravitational structures of our universe.

Big questions

  • What mechanism has created the tiny matter-antimatter imbalance in the early Universe?
  • Dark Matter: what is the most prevalent kind of matter in our Universe?
  • What is the source of Dark Energy responsible for the accelerated expansion of the Universe?
  • What is the origin of the initial state to which we trace back the evolution of the Universe?
  • Neutrino masses and oscillations: what makes neutrinos disappear and then re-appear in a different form?
  • Why do neutrinos have mass?

Methods and instrumentation
The experimental research of the Particle and Astroparticle physics is 'Big Science', characterised by large-scale infrastructure with large collaborations. Therefore, the adoption of a national strategic agenda has proven to be very successful over the last decades. This is the role of the Nikhef partnership.

Connection to other NWO disciplines and domains
R&D is needed for the experimental activities, and the start-ups that emerge from this are connected to TTW, and linked to the TopSectoren. This also provides links and collaborations with the Technical Universities of Twente, Delft and Eindhoven. There is a promising connection to ZonMW for the R&D of medical application of detection techniques. Involvement with the SGW domain is exemplified by philosophy participating in the NWA route ‘Bouwstenen’ in the creation of a Dutch Institute of Emergent Phenomena (DIEP).

Connection with the Nikhef partnership
The Nikhef partnership coordinates all activities in experimental Particle and Astroparticle physics and a substantial part of the theory efforts as agreed between NWO and the Executive Boards of the partner universities. This also includes an annual assessment of the integrated national Nikhef scientific programme by an international Scientific Advisory Committee, that reports to the board of the Nikhef partnership. The experiments typically last for many years and long-term commitment is a prerequisite for successful participation.

On its own, the theoretical community meets at least twice year as a whole to discuss progress and strategy of the field. There also exist special collaborations within the theory community on cosmology, emergent gravity and theoretical particle physics via dedicated programmes funded by NWO/FOM. Cooperation outside the theory community exists with astronomy, condensed matter theory, mathematics, computing and (quantum) information theory.

The advisory Committee for Particle and Astroparticle physics could play an important role to embed the above mentioned national strategy in the new organisation structure of the ENW domain and in good coordination with the strategic and scientific responsibilities of the Nikhef partnership.

Contribution to societal challenges, key enabling technologies and broad research themes
The research theme of Particle and Astroparticle physics is to answer directly the question “What are the fundamental building blocks of our Universe?”. The activities of the field are well-embedded in the Dutch Research Agenda (Dutch acronym NWA), in the route “Building blocks of Matter and Fundamental of Space and Time”. In pushing the research frontier the field makes key contributions to innovative technologies such as computing, as well as detector technology that can be used in other fields as far apart as medical imaging and seismic monitoring.

RC3. Physics of Fluids and Soft Matter

Fields covered
The NWO advisory committee FSM represents the fluids and soft matter (physics) communities of universities, NWO-institutes, ARCs, TO2s and industrial research labs in the Netherlands. FSM research is centered on the understanding, manipulation, and creation of soft materials and complex flows. This includes well-established subfields such as the dynamics of ‘simple’ atomic or low-molecular weight fluids (e.g., hydrodynamic transport, turbulence, micro-fluidics, electrolytes, acoustics, mixtures, multiphase flows), the dynamics and rheology of fluids with mesoscopic components (e.g., dispersions of colloidal (nano-)particles, liquid crystals, polymers, foams, emulsions) including phase behavior and self-assembly, the dynamics of fluid-solid systems (e.g., porous materials, granular media), physics of plasmas (MHD, low temperature plasmas, atmospheric plasmas), and bio- and biomimetic materials. Our highly active field is also home to many novel recent developments including for instance active fluids, (soft) robotic matter, 3D printing, nano-fluidics, nanobubbles, and mechanical metamaterials, with new topics expected to emerge in the future. A crucial feature of all FSM subject areas is the interplay between the spatial structure of (complex) fluids and soft matter and their emergent properties. Our research is both curiosity-driven - seeking to deepen our fundamental understanding - and application-oriented, meeting industrial needs in the development of advanced methodology, new materials applications and new device concepts.

Big questions
What are the fundamental physical principles underlying flow, deformation and transport in viscous, elastic and visco-elastic materials? What is the relation between molecular structure, interactions and dynamics and rheological properties? How can the behaviour and performance of fluids and soft materials in applied settings be broadened, improved or enhanced? What disruptive fundamental concepts will revolutionise turbulence research, materials science and robotics in the future?

Methods and instrumentation
Micro- and macrorheology, advanced microscopy, high-resolution optical diagnostics for (multiphase) flows, computational and analytical fluid dynamics and statistical mechanics, constitutive modelling.

Connection to other NWO disciplines and domains
FSM has abundant connections with the TTW domain (in particular at the interface with the engineering disciplines and applications), with the disciplines Chemistry (multiphase and multicomponent flows, plasmas, dispersions of colloidal nanoparticles, polymers) and Earth Sciences (turbulence, environmental flows). We foresee affinity with the new WGs PTI and NQM (plasma for materials processing, quantum dots). Soft matter spans the range from physics to chemistry to biology to applications, and particularly strong affinities are therefore expected with the WG PoL, with the distinction that in FSM Soft Matter topics are characterised by the structure-function relations, rather than biological functionality, molecular and (multi)cellular processes (including interaction and communication). Further areas of complementary interest between PoL and FSM are the physics of food, and neurophysics. Many soft matter activities concern the synthesis, design and study of new materials, hence connections with WG NQM is anticipated. Turbulence research, fluids with mesoscopic components and soft-matter research might benefit from emerging fields like machine learning and data mining such that connections with the discipline Computer Science will grow and with the WG PAP might emerge.

Contribution to societal challenges, key enabling technologies and broad research themes
Energy (solar fuels, blue energy, water/wind...), Materials (Designer/meta, soft & biomaterials, processing), Health (Food / medical applications), Smart Industry (HTSM). NWA: Blauwe Route, Building Blocks of Matter, Space and Time, Circular Economy, Energy transition, Materials Made in Holland.

RC4. Physics of Life

Fields covered
PoL represents a broad community of scientists that address questions inspired by the study of living systems using the tools of physics: a quantitative approach using physical techniques and/or mathematical modelling. The field of physics of life covers processes from the level of molecules to tissues, organs, organisms, up to ecological systems. In the past decade, the research efforts of the Dutch biophysics community have mainly focused on life at the smaller scales, from molecules to cells. Currently, experimental and computational methods move towards larger, more complex and multicellular systems, while maintaining the rigor of fundamental, quantitative analysis.

Big question
How can we relate structures, interactions and dynamics in living systems to biological functionality at different length- and timescales?

Methods and instrumentation
Key methods of the field are statistical physics and information theory, dynamical systems, coarse graining, advanced microscopy and spectroscopy, single-molecule analysis, nano/microscale manipulation, structural modelling and network theory, quantitative cellular and molecular readout technologies and medical physics. Importantly, there is a need for continuous feedback between computational modeling and experimental molecular/cellular research. The field is multi-disciplinary, with tight connections to disciplines such as biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, medicine, (bio-)informatics, material science and nanoscience.

Connection to other NWO disciplines and domains
Within physics there are many connections: the wgc FSM is interested in bioinspired, active materials, and/or soft materials, which relates to one of our focus areas. The physics of soft-condensed matter shows a large overlap with the physics of living matter. The micro- and nanofabrication activities that are strongly pushed in the wgc NQM are also of interest to our community. The wgc PTI spans a broader scope, but their instrumentation development efforts also connect to PoL. In the ENW domain, we have lively interactions with the LW discipline, illustrated by 15 years of jointly organised Biophysics@Veldhoven meetings. The Chemistry of Life wgc is the natural chemistry counterpart of PoL; members of our wgc frequently participate in chemistry committees. The increased interest in larger systems can strengthen our ties to “Aardwetenschappen”. PoL is well positioned to serve fields across the ENW domain with advice and (joint) committee memberships. Across the domains, we recognise opportunities for closer interactions with the ZonMW and TTW domains, in which PoL can provide a more fundamental, physics-based perspective. The BBoL programme and the BaSyC zwaartekracht programme are good examples of multidisciplinary partnerships, often involving private partners, and exemplify the added value of PoL: We provide a fundamental understanding of the molecular structures, dynamics and interactions at the heart of cellular functions, while promoting the social and economic implementation of this new knowledge.

Contribution to societal challenges, key enabling technologies and broad research themes
Many of the great challenges, as described in the NWA themes “oorsprong van het leven”, “personalised medicine” , “energy transitie”, “meten en detecteren”, and “Materials”, have a clear PoL component. Health challenges including cancer, aging, neurological disorders and muscular diseases have a molecular origin and biophysical studies will provide novel insight into the origins of these processes. New materials are often inspired by how novel properties emerge from the organisation of molecules at lower levels in biology; some therapeutic approaches have very specific requirements, like for regenerative medicine and certain tissue/bone replacements. Moreover, the photosynthesis research in the PoL community plays a fundamental role in the change to sustainable energy sources. These advances lead to new methods for biological research, new functional materials, advanced instrumentation for diagnosis, new (personalised) intervention schemes and the development of innovative therapeutic approaches.

RC5. Physics of Technology and Instrumentation

Fields covered
Fundamental understanding and development of new technologies and engineering innovations, e.g. in acoustics, optical metrology, medical technology, integrated photonics, nanoelectronics, quantum information, (charged) particle and X-ray beam techniques.

Big questions
Acoustics and ultrasound physics and physics of plasmas are more and more important for research towards novel applications, such as the use of the interaction of ultrasound and light in medical devices, or the application of plasma technology for the fabrication and alteration of thin films, or the fabrication of bright E/XUV sources.
In Optical metrology and instrumentation, the development of optical standards for length (and time) measurements of ever higher accuracy are key challenges. Coherent imaging techniques based on multiple scattering of light allow imaging with a resolution below the diffraction limit and seeing through diffusive scattering media. New integrated photonic devices will enable (multi-modal) imaging for tissue characterisation.
Advanced CMOS technology and derivatives, with nanometer feature sizes, enable building novel Nano-instrumentation like monolithically integrated dense arrays of active nanoelectrode sensors, for massively parallel high-speed detection of single-biomolecular events. The coupling of results obtained in Quantum Computation and Simulation Quantum Encrypted Communication with the outside world enable the development of new devices and applications. Plasma-, ion-, photon- and neutron-induced processes are also at the core of the in-situ probing and analysis of materials properties. Exploitation of the full potential of new instrumentation such as X-ray Free Electron Lasers and atomic resolution electron microscopes, calls for detailed and fundamental understanding of radiation damage.

Methods and instrumentation
Whether the applications of the new instrumentation are used for the detection of virus, biomolecule binding, configuration changes in biomolecular complexes, ultrasound waves or charged particles, deep understanding of the detection physics is essential for designing optimal sensors with superior sensitivity, specificity and signal/noise ratio, and for quantitative interpretation of the signals in all these fields.

Connection to other NWO disciplines and domains
(Charged) particle and X-ray beam techniques have always played an essential role in solid state physics, chemistry, materials science, and nanotechnology, and are becoming increasingly important in the life sciences as well. Instrumentation plays an increasingly important role in health care. Potentially relevant areas of physics include imaging optical spectroscopy for diagnosis, tomographic techniques (using X-ray, NMR, or positrons), plasma treatment for wound healing, (optical) ultrasound generation and detection techniques, instrumentation for minimally invasive techniques (e.g. micro-surgery, drug delivery, proton-therapy or body sample taking), quantitative imaging of the perfusion of tissue, and the development of lab-on-a-chip systems for diagnosis, vesicles detection and characterisation, DNA/RNA sequencing, and real-time capacitive imaging of living cells.

Contribution to societal challenges, key enabling technologies and broad research themes
PTI has connections multiple topsectors including 'Agro & Food', 'Chemistry', 'Life sciences & Health', 'Water', and 'High Tech Systems and Materials', the Innovative Medical Devices Initiative (IMDI) at TTW and ZonMW, the Photonics agenda, and with various industries. PTI also connects to the Advanced Instrumentation roadmap, to the Chemistry-werkgemeenschapscommissie ‘Methods and Fundamentals of Chemistry’ and the key technologies.