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Better than Feynman

(published 24 November 2010)

(Day one) Graham’s PA, Kelly, has organised all the bits of paper I need to sign to get me access to the library etc., and takes time to show me around, to familiarise me with this place. She has also given me keys to an office in which I have a (her!) desk (fear not, she has her primary desk elsewhere). (I had imagined that I was going to have a small corner of a lab bench on which to precariously pile my chaotic heap of bits of paper and books, topped by cameras with straps trailing, which would be perpetually in the way and knocked off at every frenetic experimental moment... Instead I have the prestigious anonymity of a desk in an office behind a largely closed door, along a long white corridor of largely closed doors. My name is almost instantly put on the door label. And the lights come on when you enter the room and go off if you sit still for long enough. I experiment with this latter trait. I wonder what Martin Creed would think.

The office is shared with a very friendly, jocular Spaniard. He is evidently intrigued by what I am going to be doing there, and entirely enthusiastic – obviously loves his subject (he is working on surface coatings, I gather). He tells me, among other things, that lasers shouldn’t actually work at all, theoretically. When I ask him to explain this comment he shows, in rapid English with a strong Spanish accent, accompanied by sketched drawings in my sketch book, how they do work (/ are believed to work...). I am left inundated by the waves of words, and with a few pencil lines and marks to take away, which almost instantly lose any little sense that they did contain at the outset. I make a mental note to return to this question when better versed in the ways and words of this world. And anyway, it is time for me to go and have lunch with the Boss.

As I walk between buildings I am struck by the claustrophobia and implicit attempts at control in the architecture of the main part of the campus; high buildings jostling together, surrounded by lots of landscaped, open space. To me the multi level walkways are confusing, and the building levels even more so. (I am later told (in seriousness?) that the floors are numbered according to how many meters above sea level they are. If Guildford weren’t so far inland I should imagine these numbers would be rather unnerving in the light of publicly postulated catastrophic climate change.) Kelly’s friendly greeting, as I finally find Graham’s office, is a calming antidote to the feeling of disorientation.

Over lunch I mention to Graham that I have been trying to read QED by Richard Feynman, as an introduction to understanding the physics of light (I don’t mention that I’ve been trying to read it on and off for about two years now, and simply can’t make it fit into my head - I just find his assumptions, on which he builds the rest of his story, too incomprehensible / implausible to accept). Graham tells me that he is “better than Feynman”, which I find enormously encouraging; this residency is going to be OK. He then spends most of an hour trying to encourage some silicon photonics information into my head, and although I am somewhat overwhelmed by the language of interconnects, technology nodes, fabs, n-types and p-types, holes, junctions, III-V compounds, wafers, wave guides, band gaps and transistors, I think I do OK. I definitely absorb something, and maybe even ask one or two pertinent questions. Afterwards I have several pages of mixed gobbledegook in my sketchbook to show for it. 

As I leave he lightly hands me a copy of Nature Photonics, a special issue of the journal that was published this August, for me to do some background reading. He is well aware (and, I think, gently entertained by the fact) that it is currently effectively totally beyond my understanding, but optimistic that by the time he’s finished with me it’ll have some sort of a place in my currently overstuffed brain. (A few days later I delve in, but largely just to skim across the surface, picking up the words that float out most overtly – avalanche photodetectors, third harmonic generation, four wave mixing, microfluidics. There is so much in the language of this subject that is poetic and visual, new words and phrases invented to describe new phenomena and ideas; quantum dots, resonant tunnelling in carbon quantum wells, etc.)

After lunch I return, replete, to the office to try to digest some of what I have imbibed. The jocular Spaniard is heading downstairs to do some lab work and invites me to accompany him to have a look. He shows me a machine, all metallic and shiny, whose name slips straight out of my other ear, in which a mystically glowing plasma sheath is visible through a small window. He is coating a wafer, I believe. 


(image borrowed from

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