Nonlinearity Engineering: from mode-locked lasers to orchestrating self-assembly
Looking at how structure and functionality arise in Nature, the role of emergent phenomena is evident and ubiquitous, from pattern formation in a sand pile, all the way up, in complexity, to the primate brain. In contrast, we rarely see deliberate use of these principles in human-made systems. Could we incorporate the same principles of operation and adaptability of, say, a bacterium, in a way that complements traditional engineering?
We propose that superior technological functionalities that are difficult or impossible to achieve with linear and near-thermal-equilibrium systems can be obtained by exploiting nonlinear dynamics far from equilibrium. I will begin by briefly describing our main experimental tool, the mode-locked laser, which generates intensely powerful pulses that we use to deliver the energy that drives our systems far from equilibrium. It is telling that mode-locking, itself a self-organized, emergent phenomenon with great technological applications, has provided much of our early guidance about controlling such systems. I will then exemplify how we orchestrate the complex dynamics of physically very different systems, whereby we exert control over spatial scales that vary from the sub-micron to the atomic and vastly improve or introduce unprecedented new capabilities, addressing long-standing engineering problems in each case.