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.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Physics and Testosterone, Part 5: Missing Nobelists

Tomorrow morning at 9AM CET, the Nobel Prize Lectures in Physics will be streamed live on the internet. François Englert will speak about The BEH Mechanism and its Scalar Boson. Peter Higg's talk is entitled Evading the Goldstone Theorem. Robert Brout, the B in BEH, will not share in the Prize. Not because he didn't make a prize-worthy contribution, but because he didn't live long enough. Brout died two and a half years ago, at the age of 82. Higgs, 84, gets the name recognition because he noticed that the "mechanism" proposed by Brout and Englert implied the existence of a particle. Englert, at 81 is the youngster of the trio. 3 other physicists Tom Kibble, Gerald Guralnik and C. R. Hagen, did pretty much the same thing, but got their paper out a bit later, so they get to be "almost Nobelists".

Ironically, Brout might have won the prize if he was a woman. Women live longer than men. But it's not as if women haven't missed out on the Nobel Prize in Physics because they were women.

Two women have been awarded Nobel Prizes in Physics, Marie Curie(1903) and Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1963). 192 men are physics Nobelists, Higgs and Englert make 194.

From what I've come to understand, there is at least one case where "being a woman" is a probable explanation for a physicist's exclusion from a Physics Nobel Prize. Chien-Shiung Wu most likely deserved a share of the Nobel Prize awarded to T. D. Lee and C. N. Yang. It's also hard to explain why another physicist, Lise Meitner, didn't share the 1944 Chemistry Prize awarded to Otto Hahn.

It's not as if the landscape for prospective prizes looks very different. Of the 42 eligible "Nobel class" physicists on Thomson-Reuters "citation laureate" list  only two are women.  (not that it's the best list or anything, but it's a list, and both Lene Hau and Vera Rubin are widely respected).

Reading through the list of 83 eminent 20th century women physicists who made their contributions before 1976, it's striking to me how many of these scientists made significant contributions despite NOT BEING ALLOWED to, or being accorded second class status of some sort.

Also I was surprised to find that many of the 83 are still eligible to win a Nobel (in addition to having made major contributions, they seem to be still around!):

This is my favorite discovery from reading
about the 83 eminent physicists. It's a photo of
Helen Megaw, a crystallographer whose
work on perovskite minerals I had encountered
in my past life as a physics researcher. It was
taken on the occasion of being awarded an
honorary degree a year or two before
her death in 2002 at age 95,
but as you can see by her expression,
she totally won life.

I was unable to find information about two others on the list, Christiane Bonnelle and Janine Connes.

There may be two or three future Nobelists on this list, or there may be zero. A few of the women on the list are eminent for their contributions to society, and wouldn't be considered for a Nobel. Sometimes it takes a long time for pioneering work to be recognized as such; sometimes today's hot topic seems inconsequential or worse, wrong, 10 years later. But imagine what the list would look like without our history of discouraging women who felt the calling of physics.

In the earlier parts of this series, I've written about the culture of physics, defined by men for the personality norms of men. It shouldn't be surprising that only a minority of women have been overcoming the barriers it imposes to reach the highest levels. Looking forward, physicists need to recognize that there are more ways to nurture physicists with the diverse talents needed today. 

My own view is that physics, broadly defined as figuring out how physical things work, is a fundamental human impulse that gets expressed in many ways. Once you start, you can't stop doing it, even if you've left the profession to do it in non-physics places. It still needs to be done, and the rewards of doing it transcends prizes that stigmatize 194 men and 2 women.
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Monday, December 2, 2013

Physics and Testosterone Part 4: Bang

True (but embellished) story:

Toni, a newly hired physicist at Bell Labs, decided to set up a new lab to do the most sensitive electrical measurements ever. So the young researcher spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building a metal cage with insulators and coatings to electrically isolate the lab from the rest of the world. When it was ready for testing, Toni's friends were summoned. They got inside the cage and Toni cranked up a high voltage power supply. "We're floating 50 thousand volts above the rest of the room!" Toni said, excitedly. "Wouldn't it be cool if we could get to a hundred kilovolts?" Toni's face had that evil grin that made them laugh, nervously. At sixty kilovolts, there was hardly a blip of noise on the oscilloscope, but the smell of ozone in the room was unmistakable. Toni didn't stop there; at 65 kilovolts there was a loud bang, the circuit breakers flipped, and the room exuded a smell of molten plastic. The cage was now arc-welded to the back wall; the expensive insulators instantly useless.

"Whoops." said Toni.

Here's a quiz for you- Which of the following do you think happened to Toni?

A. Toni was fired for her stupidity and for wasting Bell Labs' money. She never worked in Physics again.

B. Toni was mortified and considered quitting immediately. But months of taunting by colleagues who would occasionally make "bang" noises at her was too much. She is now a very successful High School teacher in Northern New Jersey.

C. Toni suddenly developed an interest in a different type of experiment, which had surprising results and today Toni is often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Physics

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