Monday, December 9, 2013

A Scientist Needs More

I visited my high school French teacher at the end of October. She's retired and lives in Alsace. My French stays with may, mostly unused, but something else I learned from her has stayed with me- she showed me how to eat steamed artichokes. Whenever I eat and enjoy artichokes that way, my mouth remembers. So often, we give something to other people, and it it lives on, having an impact out of proportion to the original gift. A girl in my Calculus class introduced me to Bruce Springsteen and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. Wherever you are, Sarah Strong, thank you, whether you remember or not!

On October 29, I lost a friend from graduate school, Kanji Yoh (陽完治), and I've been reflecting on so many things I learned from Kanji that have remained with me over the years. But what I learned has been hard for me to articulate, because it's not like artichokes or the Boss. OK, I blame Kanji for taking me to the Opera my first and only time, so I suppose I can thank him for helping me cross that off my list. But there's a lot more.

Kanji and I both started graduate school at Stanford the same year. For me graduate school was getting back on a familiar academic track towards being a scientist. For Kanji, graduate school was a step off the conventional track. He had been an engineer at Hitachi, in Japan, at the sort of job where you were expected to work for the company your entire working life. And it was reasonable to expect the company to take care of you in return. Kanji was a rare, remarkable, courageous creature, and my advisor recognized him as such. Kanji needed something more.

Valuing that "more" is what I learned from Kanji.

Kanji and I shared a tiny, sloped-ceiling office with 2 other students in the attic of Stanford's McCullough Building for four years. We were among the first batch students of a new Professor, "Coach" Jim Harris, and we were charged with building a new research lab and launch a new research program. Kanji would ask me interesting questions, and I'd startle him with odd conjectures and amazing facts.

Kanji worked on a counterintuitive idea, to engineer p-channel transistors from layers of Gallium Arsenide instead of the usual n-channel transistors. It was a sort of semiconductor jiujitsu, flipping the weak characteristics of a material into strengths, so as to balance two complementary transistors and achieve both speed and low power. It was an elegant idea; the job of a researcher is to see whether physical reality has the same beauty as the mathematical description.

My wife and I spent a memorable Thanksgiving with Kanji, his wife and some friends. We rented a condo at Lake Tahoe, went skiing, and did a real Thanksgiving turkey. Then we did some more skiing; Kanji was so eager to get out on the slopes early, and there was a foot of fresh snow.

After a post-doc at IBM Watson Labs, Kanji got a job as an Assistant Professor in Osaka. It was a difficult time for him, because the strict Japanese academic system doesn't allow much freedom for junior Faculty. I had a chance to visit him once. We walked around his neighborhood and talked about cicadas, which were making a huge noise. I told him that New Jersey cicadas, unlike Japanese cicadas, come in broods that appear in 13 or 17 year cycles. Always a prime number to fool cyclical predators. Kanji's face lit up with wonderment at the beauty of this fact. "Really?" he said.

Kanji persevered in Osaka and got a position at Hokkaido University in Sapporo. His work there covered quantum dots and wires, graphene transistors, and spin polarized tunneling. His recent work has been on "spintronics", trying to find ways to use and manipulate electron spins to do calculations with quantum mechanics. When I left semiconductor physics 15 years ago, these things were just starting to be thought about and the idea seemed so beautiful and futuristic and impossible.

Kanji played both the violin and flute and performed with three different ensembles. He was just as serious about his music as he was about his semiconductors. He became a fan of  Soprano Anna Netrebko, and would fly around the world to go to her performances. I was a bit shocked when he first told me about this, especially the part about the protocol for delivering roses to the star after a performance. But it's inspired me to take more seriously some of things I've long thought would be fun to do, but who has the time? Like visiting my high-school French teacher in Alsace and drinking Auxerrois with her friend the viticulteur.

I miss him. I'm sure Kanji's wife, a translator and prize-winning poet, and his two kids feel a great absence. They're not alone.

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