If in the infinitely large it is the gravitational force that determines the evolution in space and time of planets, stars and galaxies, when we focus our observation on the atomic scale other are the forces that allow materials to exist. These are forces that, like a “special glue”, allow atoms and molecules to aggregate to form living and non-living systems. Among them we find one that, although discovered 150 years ago by Johannes Diderik van der Waals (vdW), still carries with it some aspects of ambiguity. Van der Waals was the first to reveal its origin and to give a first and simple analytical description, even though it took more than a century, with the new discoveries of quantum field theory, to be able to fully understand its quantum character and its relation to the vacuum energy and Casimir force. And only in the last 30 years it has been realized how much this force pervades the natural world. One of the wonders is represented by the geckos, who use these forces to climb vertical and smooth walls thanks to the vdW forces, which are enhanced because of the multitude of hairs present in each finger of their legs. These forces are also known to affect the stability of the double helix of the DNA and are also responsible for the interactions between different groups of amino acids.
What makes the vdW force unique is the fact that it is the weakest of the inter-atomic and inter-molecular forces present in nature and therefore it remains extremely difficult to measure with great accuracy. At the same time, even the inclusion of these force in the most accurate methods of calculation has not yet found a universal solution and the different approaches used by theoretical physicists and chemists to take them into account can sometimes lead to conflicting results.
Image: CO desorption from Gr/Ir(111). (a) Selected spectra of the uptake corresponding to θCO=0.08 ML (bottom) and 0.30 ML (top). (b) TP-XPS C 1s core level spectra showing its evolution during thermal desorption of CO from Gr/Ir(111). (c) Comparison of CO coverage evolution as a function of temperature for selected CO initial coverages.