Friday, December 19, 2008


I'm feeling a bit verklempt about having sold my beloved honda civic, Betty. The guy who bought her (a young jewish guy named Oren from Long Island) seemed really nice and he was SO excited to find a 4DR standard transmission civic.

I bought Betty new, for a bit under 14,000$ in August of 1997 when I first moved to Hoboken. I didn't know how to drive standard transmission at the time, so the first few weeks were a bit rough. But she was patient with me, and within a few thousand miles we were getting along great. I really enjoyed my time alone with her --- driving to and from work was a time to prepare for the day, or recover from it. When she was feeling feisty we tried to set new speed records (23 minutes. I bet you can't beat that in a Porche!). On the weekends, she survived many a road trip, and she dutifully carried heaps of windsurfing equipment on her roof and in her trunk, and she never complained.

The most amazing thing about Betty was how reliable she was. Even after 175,000 miles, really nothing had gone ever wrong with her. Two flat tires, occassional new muffler, and two broken windshields from rocks being thrown up at me by trucks, but nothing worse than that. It is hard for me to even imagine that I will ever have another car as great as Betty.

I almost cried when I handed over the keys.
Thursday, December 18, 2008

My Last Day at Bell Labs

After 11 years working at Bell Labs, today was my last day.

For the last 9 of these years I have been the head of a department that has done research on topics ranging from neuroscience to theoretical physics to experiments on quantum computing. During that time I have had some truly exceptional scientists in my department. I wish I could say that I helped them all with their research, but that is far from true. Someone once described my job as being like the sport of curling -- sweeping the ice so that the stone can go in the right direction. The scientists in my department knew better than anyone else what direction they should be going. What they needed from me most, was just removal of various impediments, and good strong representation to the higher authorities. I like to think that I managed to provide this on most occasions.

In trying to write an homage to Bell, I could think of nothing better than simply the names of the people who have reported to me, and where they are now.
  • Loren Pfeiffer, Ken West, and Kirk Baldwin will be leaving Bell for Princeton in Spring of 2009
  • Mike Manfra is a Professor of Physics, Material Sciences and Electrical Engineering at Purdue
  • Bob Willett remains at Bell
  • Sharad Ramanathan is a Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University
  • Ronen Rapaport is Professor of Physics at Hebrew University
  • Gang Chen remains at Bell
  • Nicolai Zhitenev is a researcher at the National Institute for Science and Technology
  • Girsh Blumberg is a Professor of Physics at Rutgers University
  • Oleg Mitrofanov is a researcher at London Center for Nanotechnology
  • Chris Fuchs is a researcher at the Perimeter Institute
  • Anirvan Sengupta is a Professor of Physics and Biology at Rutgers
  • Boris Shraiman is Permanent Member of Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at Santa Barbara
  • Michale Fee is a Professor of Neuroscience at MIT
  • Mark Schnitzer is a Professor of Biological Sciences and Applied Physics at Stanford
  • Rafi de Picciotto founded a startup company in Isreal
  • Stephen Van Enk is a professor of Physics at University of Oregon
  • Chandra Varma is a professor of Physics at UC Riverside
  • Phil Platzman is a researcher emeritus at Bell
  • Anton Andreev is a professor of Physics at University of Washington
  • Partha Mitra is a researcher at Cold Spring Harbor
I'm sure I missed some, as I'm reconstructing this list from memory. I'd like to thank all of these above listed people for their support, their friendship, and their great research that made me look good just by being associated with them.

In addition to these members of technical staff there were quite a few excellent post-docs (and it is more likely that I've missed a few here)
  • Alex Punnoose is a professor of Physics at City College of New York
  • David Lubensky is a professor of Physics at University of Michigan
  • Joel Moore is a professor of Physics at UC Berkeley
  • Aris Moustakas is a professor of Applied Physics at University of Athens
  • Alexei Tkachenko is a professor of Physics at University of Michigan
  • Stephan Schmult is a researcher at the Max Planck institute in Stuttgart
  • Richard Hahnloser is a professor of neuroinformatics at ETHZ in Switzerland
  • Luca Marinelli is a researcher at GE
  • Evgenii Naramanov is a professor of Electrical Engineering at Purdue
  • Raissa de Souza is a professor at UC Davis
  • Oana Malis is a professor of EE and Physics at Purdue
Similar thanks to all of these people. There were also some wonderful students (and I'm certainly certainly missing many many more here)
  • Simon Trebst is a researcher at Microsoft Station Q
  • Gunnar Moller is a postdoc at Cambridge
  • Anna Lopatnikova, is a hedge fund manager
  • Yaroslav Tserkovnyak is a Professor of Physics at UCLA
  • Ilya Berdnikov defended his dissertation yesterday at Rutgers and is at a financial firm
  • Nada Petrovic is working on her PhD at UCSB
  • Mara Baraban is working on her PhD at Yale
Of course during my time at Bell I had some great managers too
  • Peter Littlewood, now head of the Cavindish Lab at Cambridge.
  • Don Hamann, now adjunct faculty at Rutgers.
  • Cherry Murray now deputy director at Livermore National Lab
  • Federico Capasso, now a professor at Harvard
  • Dave Bishop. Now CTO of LGS,
  • Alice White, now head of North American research for Alcatel-Lucent
  • Martin Zirngble, now head of physical sciences research for Alcatel-Lucent
I want to thank them all for their support. Some of these people were truly exceptional managers and they all fought very hard for us in times of painful downsizing.

In addition, the other department heads who I worked closely with were also an exceptional bunch.
  • David Tank is a professor of genomics(?) at Princeton
  • Pierre Wiltzius is dean of sciences at UCSB
  • John Rogers is at the Beckman Institute in Urbana
  • Eric Isaacs is now deputy director of sciences at Argonne National Lab
  • Dick Slusher is director of the quantum institute at Georgia Tech
  • Elsa Reichmanis is a professor of chemistry at Georgia Tech
  • Art Ramirez is a research director at LGS
  • Susanne Arney remains a department head at Bell Labs
  • YK Chen remains a department head at Bell Labs
  • John Gates, not sure where he is.

I'd certainly like to thank them all for their help and friendship too. Some of these people were undoubtedly the people I turned to first when things got tough.

Finally there are a bunch of other people who don't fit into any of the above categories because they were outside of my management chain. It was also a pleasure to have scientific (or other) discussions with (and in some cases write papers with) the following people
  • Doug Natelson, now a professor of Physics at Rice
  • Mark Ericsson, now a professor of Physics at UW Madison
  • Don Monroe, now a science journalist
  • Paul Citrin, now teaching high school in NJ
  • Xing Wei, not sure where he is now
  • Claire Gmachl, now a professor of Engineering at Princeton
  • Paul Kolodner, still a researcher at Bell
  • Joanna Aizenberg, now a professor at Harvard
  • Tom Marzetta, still a researcher at Bell
  • David Abusch-Magder is the principal of a school in Chicago
  • Don Tennant, now director of operations of Cornell Nanocenter
  • Sivarama Venkatessan, still a researcher at Bell
  • Gerry Foschini, still a researcher at Bell
  • Tony Novembre, assistant director of Princeton PRISM
  • Harold Hwang, professor of Materials at university of Tokyo
  • Gabi Ernst, works for Bosch in Stuttgart
  • Glen Kowach, now a professor of chemistry at City College of New York
I've probably missed at least dozens more in this category. Then I could start in thanking the support staff (who is, as usual, totally unappreciated by most), the higher management, the people in completely different parts of the company, the team in Ireland, the team in the Netherlands, the team in France, the government gang, the IP team, and the list goes on and on. I apologize to those I have not listed by name here.

At any rate, these people (and the many who I did not list by name) were the people at Bell who worked with me, in one way or another, over the last 11 years and made my experience at Bell truly amazing.

Thank you all!
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Report from Station Q Meeting

Several years ago Microsoft made a rather bold decision to fund a substantial research project (now known as “Station Q”) exploring one particular approach to quantum computation, known as topological quantum computation. This project funds some top-notch physicists and mathematicians who work for Microsoft, as well as funding many other researchers at universities around the country and around the world. This has been a huge shot in the arm for my part of the physics community, which had been languishing due to insufficient government funding. Despite my loathing of Windows Vista, I have sworn not to say anything bad about Microsoft because I am eternally grateful to them for making my life as a scientist a whole lot more interesting.

Last week Microsoft hosted its biannual Station Q progress meeting at their research center in Santa Barbara. This is the sixth such meeting and, although the first few meetings were depressingly void of good experimental data, the last few have been extremely exciting and filled with plenty of interesting new things to think about. The experiments have been focused, to a large extent, on understanding the physics of one state of matter known as the nu=5/2 quantum Hall state. In particular, the experiments are trying to demonstrate that the state of matter is "non-Abelian" (maybe I'll blog about what this actually means some other time.. see also my upcoming web page at Oxford). At any rate, if the experiments manage to show this to be true, as all the theorists already believe, it would potentially provide a new route to building an error free (decoherence free) quantum computer -- essentially doing an end-run around the main stumbling block that has so far stymied all attempts to do real quantum information processing.

Of course all of the experiments are insanely difficult. They are all done at temperatures between 10 and 50 millikelvin above absolute zero. That is something like 1/10000 of room temperature. And the actual interesting part of the experiment is just a few square microns large. This is not for the faint-of-heart.

Maybe some day I will blog about all of the interesting experiments that were discussed at this meeting and how I see status of this field. However, for now I want to talk about two of the talks that were the most controversial. Both talks were research projects that I presumably have some responsibility for. One talk was given by Bob Willett, who is a researcher in my group at Bell labs, although he certainly runs his show without any help from me --- and as of thursday I am no longer at Bell anyway. The other talk was given by Woowon Kang from University of Chicago --- I worked very closely with him, proposing many pieces of the experiment. I spent much of the conference discussing the results of these two talks, and debating whether they were "right" or not. I think most people agreed that in both cases the data was certainly interesting, but in neither case could any conclusion really be drawn yet. The problem in both cases was that data was shown where it was very hard to see if there was really a signal behind some very noisy results. And in neither case was the necessary detailed statistical analysis done. As a result the feisty audience tried to hold both of their feet to the fire. (Note: part of the point of this conference is to show preliminary data, so even if their feet got burned a bit, they should not be blamed).

The discussions that ensued over this data made me think very hard about how to treat murky data. One sometimes gets the idea that science is very clear -- test a hypothesis and the result is either right or wrong. But frequently the results come out inconclusive... or barely conclusive. In some cases results get accepted by the community on tenuous data and later have to be reconsidered. Of course, in the best of all worlds, data is crystal clear and there is little room for doubt. But more often this is not the case. One has to be even more careful when there is a great driving force for a community to come to a particular conclusion. In this case, the community is predisposed to want to see results that confirm what we all expect. It is likely that the answer will turn out to be what we have predicted for years -- but we should keep an open mind that it may not turn out this way and we certainly should not jump to declare victory until the data really is incontrovertible. (On the flip side, there may be others in the community predisposed to disbelieve the data, and they should similarly agree to keep an open mind).

With this in mind, I decided it was a good idea to go back and reread the words of the great physicist Richard Feynman:

"Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists."

I personally hope that at least one of these works (or perhaps another similar experiment from another group) turns out to be correct, as this will give further life to a very exciting scientific field. But also, I hope that, despite all of our desire to see these experiments prove the theories, the community lives up to its scientific responsibility to accept the data as correct only when it really has been established, and to raise appropriate questions until that time.
Thursday, December 11, 2008

Everyone should know who Marie Curie and John Bardeen are

Needless to say, there are many scientists out there who left important marks on our world. Even the least educated amongst us usually know something about Einstein “that genius guy with the crazy hair.” But Einstein perhaps is unique among scientists in how widely recognized he is. I would guess that even such greats as Darwin or Newton are nowhere near as universally known. Who else does every school child know about, and who should they know about?

In the current state of affairs, I think the general public is woefully ignorant of the sciences (as well as being almost completely innumerate). The question I would like to pose is, given that we scientists cannot reasonably demand that the public knows about every important scientist, we might want to come to a consensus as to which scientists should be in the educational canon.

Marie Curie:

When I was growing up, one scientist that I really admired was Marie Curie. Most of the educated, have probable heard of her, I would hope. Her story is truly a great one. Coming from a relatively poor background in Poland, she eventually ended up winning two Nobel prizes (A prize in Physics in 1903 with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel for discovery of radioactivity and a solo prize in Chemistry in 1911 for isolation of Radium). She achieved all this despite being one of very very few women in all of science at the time. Perhaps the atmosphere in science was so difficult for women that you really had to be this good to have anyone pay attention to you at all.

Incidentally, in 1943, when biographical movies were very popular, a movie was made about Curie starring Greer Garson, who was nominated for an academy award in this role. Although clearly Hollywood-ized at least a bit, it is still very much worth the rental. There are also several good books about Curie. I remember reading a children’s book about her when I was about nine years old and being completely enthralled – in particular by one episode where she was so engrossed in her work that she only ate radishes and cherries for several days then fainted from exhaustion. For anyone who doesn't know Curie’s story in detail, go rent the movie or read a book about her.

So let us set our bar about this high. In order to be in the required educational canon, you must be arguably as important as Curie. There have been several hundred Nobel laureates since the inception of the prize in 1901, but a mere handful of people have gotten two. Even Einstein only won a single prize, although many insist that he was entitled to one more for general relativity, which was not really convincingly confirmed until after his death. So who else is on the list of double Nobel winners?

Linus Pauling:

His first prize was in Chemistry in 1954 for the orbital hybridization model of chemistry. Most high school students who study chemistry do learn this, at least vaguely (Remember sp3 and sp2 hybrids?). After this, as a prominent scientist, he became an outspoken opponent of Nuclear armaments, and he ended up winning the Peace prize in 1963 during the height of the cold war, for campaigning against nuclear testing. But the Peace prize is a strange one – it is usually a prize of the time, as this one clearly was, and is meant to effect the progress of diplomacy and peace in the world. Although Pauling was a great man in multiple ways (and the only person to have ever won two solo Nobel prizes) it is also true that he did not win two science Nobels.

John Bardeen:

I can already hear people scratching their heads and saying “Who?”. Yeah, that’s my point. Bardeen should be a name we all know – he won two prizes in physics for two of the most important advances of the last century.

His first prize was in 1962 for the invention of the transistor along with Walter Brattain and William Shockley (the work was done at Bell Labs in the building where I’ve worked for the last 11 years and will work for one more week before I go off to Oxford). It is hard to overstate how important this advance has been to the world, as it was the fundamental advance that allowed the computer age and the information age to come about. The laptop I am using right now contains over a billion transistors inside of it. In fact, practically no electronic device these days is without them – hundreds, thousands, millions, or billions of them. Yes, it is true that the transistor was only the first step in the electronics revolution, but it was a very important step. (Perhaps as important was the integrated circuit that allowed many transistors to be made at one time – Kilby won a Nobel in 2000 for this advance).

Bardeen’s second prize was in 1972 for creating the theory of superconductivity, along with Leon Cooper and Robert Schrieffer. The fact that at low temperature certain materials lose all resistance to electricity was discovered in 1911 by H. Kamerlingh Onnes (he won the Physics Nobel in 1913). If you make a loop of sufficiently thick superconducting wire and you start running current around the loop, it will literally continue flowing for the age of the universe without any noticeable reduction in current (as long as the temperature stays low). It took half a century of work to come up with a theory of why this happens And when the theory was finally worked out it was incredibly beautiful – universally hailed as one of the major intellectual milestones of the century. Indeed, the theory even gave us hints at the structure of symmetry breaking for fundamental particles and the electro-weak interaction (the so-called Anderson-Higgs mechanism).

Considering this remarkable two-fer, it is amazing that so few have heard of Bardeen and that his is not a household name like Watson and Crick, or Feynman – who admittedly had some very large publicity operations on their side, but only had one Nobel each.

Fredrick Sanger:

OK, here I admit that I am a bit guilty of what I blame the “ignorant masses” for – saying “Who?”. Clearly my education in chemistry is lacking. Once again, we have a double Nobel Laureate and no one has ever heard of him. Well, to be more honest, I did vaguely know who he was, but I couldn’t actually remember what his prizes were for and I had to look them up.

His first prize, in Chemistry in 1958 was for determining the structure of insulin. This was the first protein to be sequenced (it took 12 years for him to do so) and this result started the trend of examining the relation between structure and function of biological materials. His second prize, shared with two others, also in Chemistry, in 1980, was for developing techniques to figure out the sequences of long DNA and RNA molecules – also incredibly important in modern biology and biochemistry.

And that is all she wrote. Only four people have ever been double Nobel laureates. Isn’t it odd that every high school student (much less every student potentially interested in science) isn’t reading their biographies? Maybe they should be. How about a remake of the Curie movie starring some beautiful starlet like Anne Hathaway or similar? The supposedly politically conscious Hollywood might be interested in promoting better images of women than most of what I see in movies these days. Come on Hollywood, I dare you.
For physicists, one of the most difficult, even treacherous, situations is the cocktail party. I do not say this because I think physicists lack conversational skills. That is a very ill-deserved stereotype: most physicists are actually quite personable and frequently very funny. Yes, perhaps some physicists are a bit unusual, perhaps some are not very fashionably dressed, and perhaps some lack Emily Post manners (these quirks are frequently to the dismay of their spouses or significant others). No, I say that cocktail parties are difficult because invariably someone asks “what do you do for a living” which puts the physicist in a difficult position. On the one hand, most physicists would love to start an hour long lecture on their chosen topic of devotion. Virtually every physicist absolutely loves their work, or they would not have chosen the rather difficult road to being a physicist. But the unsuspecting cocktail party guest does not really expect, and rarely wants, to hear an hour long lecture on the beauty of spontaneous symmetry breaking, the renormalization group, or the like. And nothing is more painful to the physicist than trying to reduce some mind-blowing concept to a single one sentence answer. Wouldn’t James Joyce cringe to be forced to summarize his Ulysses to one sentence, perhaps as “the story of a guy having a day that feels pretty long.”? But nor would you want Joyce to give you the whole story over a gin and tonic.

I have still not come up with a perfect strategy for handling this type of situation. Usually I resist giving more than one word answers until I am convinced that the person who asked the question really wants to hear the extended remix for the answer, in which case, once pushed, I can talk incessantly. I remember once launching into an hour-long rant about what a travesty it is that the common educated person does not know who the physicist John Bardeen is, the same way that people know who Watson and Crick are (for those of you who don’t know, maybe I’ll write a blog entry about Bardeen soon). Another time I raged about why nonpertubative physics is the fundamental problem that all theoretical physicists need to wrestle with for the next century. I’m not sure how well these, or any other of my spontaneous cocktail party lectures, were received, but I think that having an audience who had already had a few cocktails might have helped.

The reason this all comes to mind is because of what transpired over my Thanksgiving holiday last month. As in previous years, I went up to Rochester NY to visit my family. During the traditional Thanksgiving feast, we each tried to explain to the youngsters at the table – my niece Seneca (almost 4.5 years old) and my nephew Milo (2.3 years old) – what we did for a living. Well, trying to explain to a five year old what a physicist does is a tough task, and as usual I tried to squirm out of it. But rightly pushed by their mom (“you have to give them a good answer so they can grow up to be scientists too”, which, incidentally, I would very much like to see) I struggled to come up with something short and sweet and simple. My quick answer was

“A physicist is someone who tries to figure out why things work the way they do… like why something falls when you drop it”

But I was not completely happy with this as an answer. On the other hand, even after some thinking, I still have yet to come up with a better response. If any of the physicists (or non-physicists) out there want to give a shot at one sentence that summarizes what a physicist does, suitable for five year olds and perhaps cocktail parties, please post in the comments section or email it to me directly. With luck at next Thanksgiving I will be able to start the process of turning my niece and nephew into future physicists (although perhaps they might want to focus on kindergarten first).
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Freshman Physics

During my first two semesters at Oxford I'll be relieved of lecturing responsibilities. Nonetheless, I still have to do two-on-one tutorial sessions to the tune of about 6 hours per week. I agreed to take over the tutorial responsibilities of my friend Roderich Moessner who left Oxford last year, thus vacating the job that I landed in. This included tutorials for an advanced third year undergraduate physics course called "Condensed Matter" a second year course on Statistical Physics, and a first year course on electricity and magnetism. Since I have to tutor these subjects I thought it might be a good idea if I were to go through the curriculum and remind myself what undergraduate physics is all about. Perhaps predictably, I found the two advanced courses to be a breeze, but the first year course was really hard! Maybe I never learned E+M correctly the first time through, or maybe the professor is just being difficult and assigning hard problems for homework. At any rate it looks like I have some reviewing to do in the next few weeks. Anyone out there have a good book on waveguides and transmission lines?