Inner Workings: Legos in the lab (article in PNAS on the work of Leiden PI Vincenzo Vitelli)


(By: Stephen Ornes, PNAS 20 Oct. 2016)

Vincenzo Vitelli is a condensed matter physicist who plays with blocks. “I play with Legos more than most kids,” he says.Figure

Vincenzo Vitelli works with Legos to bring theoretical physics principles to life. Image courtesy of Vincenzo Vitelli (Lorentz Institute, University of Leiden, The Netherlands).

Vitelli’s creations crowd together on pegboards and platforms in his office at the Lorentz Institute at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands. They invite interaction: Push on a lattice that looks like basket weave, and it barely shrugs. Nudge a free-hanging block on a chain-like structure, and its sets off a cascade that travels like a wave from one end to the other. Plastic bins filled with loose blocks, sorted by color, occupy nearby shelves. “There's nothing simpler than Legos,” he says.

In his hands, Legos are no mere playthings. Vitelli uses the blocks to build physical representations and models of abstract concepts. He refers to his research as “topological mechanics,” encompassing both classical concerns and insights into quantum systems that appear in condensed matter. That means that his colorful, complicated structures have deep mathematical roots. The process of designing, building, and manipulating such Lego models can be powerful, he says, not only for demonstrating an abstract idea but also for unveiling unanticipated insights. Click here for further reading.