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March 24th 2017

A summary of the seven programmes that will start shortly is given below.

1. Strange metals
Strange metals are called strange because their behaviour deviates from the standard properties of metals. Their electrical resistance increases linearly with temperature until the melting point. Together with colleagues from Leiden University, Utrecht University and the University of Amsterdam, Professor Nigel Hussey (Radboud University) wants to investigate whether strange metals provide opportunities for quantum entanglement over longer distances based on holographic principles. The programme connects leading researchers in the area of string theory and quantum many-body theory, with experimental solid-state physicists to explore in depth the fundamental physics of strange metals.

Hussey responds: "We are pleased with this award: this programme is the first one in the world that combines experiment and theory to ascertain the origin of the behaviour of strange metals, related to high-temperature superconductivity. We are inspired by theories that were originally developed for quantum gravitation, and the timing of this new programme gives us an advantage over the global competition in this discipline - something that we expect to benefit from during the next five years."

2. Determining the protein sequence in a single molecule
Together with researchers from Wageningen University and the University of Groningen, researchers from Delft University of Technology under the leadership of Dr Chirlmin Joo want to analyse proteins molecule by molecule using single-molecule techniques. A biological nanomachine will align the protein molecules after which the researchers will read out the amino acid sequence using a combination of optical techniques (single-molecule fluorescence) and electrical detection with nanopores. This will lay the foundation for a spectacular new technique for determining the protein sequence at single molecule level, also for complex and diverse cell proteins.

Joo is looking forward to the programme: "In view of the high desirability of gaining a better understanding of the molecular basis of human diseases, a method is needed that can accurately analyse proteins. With our team – three biophysicists, a biochemist, an organic chemist and a bioinformatician – I am looking forward to developing a first proof-of-concept for single-molecule protein sequencing."

3. Physics beyond the Standard Model with cold molecules
The size of the electrical dipole moment of the electron (eEDM) is a highly sensitive indicator for physics beyond the Standard Model of particle physics. In experiments up until now only the upper limit for the value of the eEDM has been found. Professor Steven Hoekstra (University of Groningen) wants to improve measurements of the eEDM in a sensitive new experiment with cold molecules and by doing this he wants to help answer the big questions in particle physics and cosmology. The University of Groningen, VU University Amsterdam and Nikhef are working closely together in this programme. The researchers will jointly carry out the actual experiment in Groningen.

Hoekstra responds excitedly: "It is fantastic that we have received the opportunity to carry out this very exciting experiment that brings together atomic, molecular and particle physics. We will use our expertise in cooling and slowing down molecules to measure the size of the eEDM. It is fascinating that with this new approach we can reach the boundaries of the Standard Model of particle physics by means of a compact experiment."

4. Exploring new horizons: space-time, black holes and quantum information
New and unexpected parallels have been discovered between gravity and quantum information theory, which mean that space-time and gravity are not independent entities but emerge from the joint behaviour of certain quantum degrees of freedom. In this programme professor Eric Bergshoeff (University of Groningen), together with colleagues from the University of Amsterdam, Leiden University and Utrecht University, wants to discover the general principles and mathematical laws underlying quantum gravitation and what the consequences of these are for the physics of black holes and cosmology. The consortium will focus on string theory, but also use new concepts from both quantum information theory and solid-state physics.

Programme leader Bergshoeff looks ahead: "Quantum information theory gives a new boost to the fascinating research into quantum gravitation. The resultant gravitation that emerges from this permanently changes our view of space, time and forces, and this could have far-reaching consequences for our understanding of black holes and cosmology.''

5. Skyrmions as information carriers
In various disciplines of the natural sciences, symmetry and topology are connecting themes. A certain topological state, the skyrmion, plays a role in a wide range of physics contexts. In this FOM programme, Professor Maxim Mostovoy (University of Groningen) and colleagues from the University of Groningen and Delft University of Technology will focus on magnetic skyrmions due to their interesting properties such as the spin structure that gives rise to effective magnetic fields. Also the possibilities for using skyrmions as information bits, when they are brought into motion by low electrical currents, are highly promising. Theory, materials synthesis and the latest experimental techniques for investigating new magnetic topological states and transport effects will be brought together in this FOM programme.

"We are very pleased with this award, which enables us to realise and use skyrmions in novel materials," responds programme leader Mostovoy.

6. Neurophotonics: the physics of signals in neural networks
One of the biggest current scientific challenges in biophysics is understanding how the brain controls our behaviour with billions of neurons in neural networks. In this programme Dr Lukas Kapitein (Utrecht University) will bring experts in the area of neurophysiology together with excellent researchers from photonics to try and unravel the physics principles behind the development and conduction of electrical impulse in intact brain tissue. To make this possible they will make use of advanced photonic techniques that will enable them to compensate for the unavoidable distortion and scattering of light in tissue. The programme is a joint effort of Utrecht University, University of Twente and the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience (KNAW).

Programme leader Lukas Kapitein is delighted: "This is a superb opportunity to elaborate recently developed concepts from photonics and to apply these to a fundamental question about the brain: how do electrical signals arise and propagate in tissue? Furthermore, the technology developed will also be widely applicable to other questions about the functioning of cells in their natural complex environment."

7. The mysterious size of the proton
Various physics phenomena are difficult to explain using the successful Standard Model. This not only concerns exotic issues, such as dark matter and dark energy, but also the more tangible question about exactly how large a proton is. Various types of measurements have yielded values for the radius of the proton that differ by more than five standard deviations from each other. The solving the so-called Proton Radius Puzzle is important for the quest for physics beyond the Standard Model and could lead to ground-breaking physics. Professor Kjeld Eikema (VU University Amsterdam) and his colleagues want to use the knowledge and unique experimental facilities within the VU LaserLaB to further solve this proton puzzle. The idea is to carry out very accurate measurements with lasers on different types of molecular hydrogen and helium and to compare the results with theoretical QED calculations.

Kjeld Eikema is proud: "We are exceptionally pleased with this award. We have now been offered a unique possibility to gain a better understanding of the Proton Radius Puzzle with the help of precise measurements made on different molecules and atoms, which can only be carried out in the infrastructure of the LaserLaB at VU University Amsterdam. "


About the Vrije FOM-programma's
In a Vrij FOM-programma the specialists from various Dutch knowledge institutes consolidate their strengths in specific areas. The research groups work in areas that Dutch physics excels in at an international level and for which there is a clear scientific and societal interest. The new research programmes must lead to a real understanding of recently discovered phenomena and in some cases also provide perspectives for new technologies. With the Vrije FOM-programma's FOM is trying to achieve two objectives: physics research of the highest possible quality in the Netherlands plus a focus on scientific subjects and the consolidation of research activities. Through the Vrije FOM-programma's FOM also realises strategic research policy via its subareas.

The Vrije FOM-programma's arise on the basis of ideas from researchers, who can develop and submit a proposal. All programme proposals are in competition with each other. The programmes should have a clear objective, focus, cohesion and added value (compared to separate small-scale projects). Of course, the scientific quality must be convincing as well.

With effect from 1 January 2017, FOM will be integrated within the new NWO. New research funding rounds in the physical and natural sciences will from that moment onwards be realised by the Physical and Natural Sciences (PNS) domain of NWO. Announcements about changes in the research funding will be communicated well in advance.