Sunday, March 8, 2009


Oxford and Cambridge were established so many years ago that you might think that cavemen came to study here and rode their dinosaurs home. Education has apparently been important around here for quite some time. It would be natural to expect that other universities would have popped up left and right given the success of the first two. But in fact, exactly the opposite happened. The success of the big two prevented the establishment of any more. To use terminology that only physicists will appreciate, the whole country lived in the “correlation-hole” of Oxford and Cambridge. The third university to be established in this country was arguably (and there is argument) University College London in 1826, founded on the rather nice principle of secular education

UCL and its sister colleges recently established the London Centre for Nanotechnology. I went down there last Wednesday to give this seminar and had a chance to look around a bit and talk to the very nice team of scientists they have assembled.

I already know several of the people at LCN quite well. Cyrus Hirjibehedin, my host, I have known since he was a grad student at Columbia because he did much of his research at Bell labs. I think I even coauthored a paper with him (OK, it was Physica E which is not a great journal, but still, it was actually a good paper). After his PhD Cyrus went on to do a postdoc at IBM Almaden where he quickly rose to great fame in the physics community with some extremely beautiful STM experiments studying magnetic atoms on surfaces. When he accepted his job here in London, they agreed to more or less design the new LCN building with his new lab in mind. It is a really impressive setup – and they are doing (and planning) some pretty cool experiments with it too.

The other person who I know well at LCN is my friend, and former colleague from Bell, Oleg Mitrofanov (I didn’t get a chance to see his lab, as it is in a different building). Oleg left Bell to come to the UK only about a year before I did. I think I was Oleg’s department head for a year or two a while back, but he then moved into another department. He seems to be pretty happy about having moved here.

Of course one of the main reasons to go visit universities and research centers (and the reason I am on the road so often) is to make new friends and find out what kinds of interesting new scientific things are going on. I met a number of first rate scientist whose work I hope to follow more closely in the future.

The scientific highlight, perhaps, was that I had my first ever chance to chat with the very senior and very respected Professor (and now knighted so officially “Sir”) Michael Pepper, who is now split between Cambridge and LCN. I was too shy to ask whether when you get knighted you still have to kneel before the queen and be touched with a sword. Wikipedia says you do. I wish we had more time to chat, as there were too many experiments he has done recently that I wanted to discuss. (For the physics savvy, this includes his work on building a surface wave current standard, his study of the so-called .7 structure, and his attempt to develop exciton condensates at zero magnetic field.).

At the end of the rather long day, Cyrus and Oleg took me to dinner at a really nice sea food restaurant. The food was excellent and we found a very nice bottle of wine too. Alas, I neither remember the name of the restaurant (it was near the Great Portland Street tube) nor the name of the wine (it was a Spanish white wine with a somewhat salty taste). I’m sure Cyrus would remember at least the restaurant, then if you go there, they had a pretty limited wine list, so you could probably find the right one based on this description. We chatted for hours, gossiping about physics, common friends (and enemies), and about making the transition to the UK. When it got to be around 10, I realized I had better head for the trains lest I miss the last one home.

I am going to have to make a point of going down there to visit again soon.


Doug Natelson said...

Hey Steve - Please give Cyrus my best regards. It makes me feel very old to know that I was his TA at Stanford for freshman E&M.

Steve said...

And I'm how many years older than you? Ugh... I think my back just gave out.