Schrödinger's Kitten

Irreverent Science for Everyone

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Curiosity Thrilled The Cat: How I Decided What To Work On

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How did I end up working in nanotechnology and smart materials? This is a surprisingly difficult question, and for some reason involved three years as a writer. However, I’ve done some research (by which I mean I called my mum) and I have deduced the following:

Origin Story

My dad was a physicist, and had a very endearing way of answering fully and in depth my childhood questions about what things were and how they worked. My bath-time as a nine-year-old was once wholly taken up with an explanation of laws of logs, in response to me asking how his slide rule worked. But I didn’t spend my childhood taking things apart or making clocks: I actually spent most of it drawing and reading and doing craft with my mum. I had a tonne of curiosity about everything, from the Aztecs to Greek mythology and other planets, and there were a lot of books to work through in the library.

This was not always received well. I remember when I was 10 or so we had to do a presentation on something in front of the class. Other people did their dog or favourite football team. With my dad’s help, I talked about a journey through the solar system. It began: ‘Imagine you’re a light beam, travelling out through space…’

Afterwards, the boys mocked me with a chorus of ‘Imagine you’re a light beam’ in sing-song, lisping voices. I felt stupid. I’d been such a ‘boffin’. I should have spoken about my pets.

Now, though, I know it was the most interesting talk. The Solar System is, by definition, more exciting than a football team contained within it. Kids are crap at set theory.

Fundamentals of Particles: Why Physics?

As I got older, I was still asking awkward questions and seeking more knowledge to devour. When I was 12 I went on holiday with my mum, my brother and our family friends, and ran out of books to read, so I read my mum’s book, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I loved those quarks and black holes and particle pairs, charge conservation and annihilation. You could draw a picture of a path in space time, and there was deep symmetry in the universe. I liked these things, and (if I’m truthful) reading books that made people think I was clever.

I had a horrible time at compulsory school, but despite that I was still interested in everything, or at least everything with a definitive answer1. There was so much science around I found it hard to choose between genes and galaxies, or quarks and quipu. But finding that everything came down to small, achievable particles, that obeyed nice, predictable rules, I thought physics might be a good place to start, and then I could look at other bits of science later. I still loved drawing and art, but I figured I could always draw in my spare time while doing physics professionally, while being allowed to play with particle accelerators on a casual basis was less likely.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do: I just chose a place to start learning. I didn’t have a role model2 because I wanted to solve grand unified theory in the week, draw like Aubrey Beardsley on the weekends, and gig like Jello Biafra in the evenings, and there are no punk rock mad scientist artists. Yet.

The Science Communication Years

I did a degree in physics, and research in organic LEDs. When I graduated, I didn’t feel clever or focused enough to do research for a living. But I could write, and I thought being able to do ‘hard’ science and write was unusual, and I might be able to make a living trying to sell people on why science was awesome and why they shouldn’t resent their tax money being spent on it. I wrote magazine articles, educational materials, I did research for the BBC, press officer things, and I worked doing communications and events for UCL Engineering. Again, I couldn’t tie myself to a subject; talked to astrophysicists looking at the first galaxies in the universe, read about linguistic word frequency, and looked at stem cells through microscopes.

But every time I left those labs or stopped reading those papers and needed to write about them, my heart sank. I wanted to be like these people doing great things, not just arranging things for them, and I wanted to know how things worked deep down, rather than just skimming the surface and dolloping it onto a plate for, hopefully, someone to care about, if it reminded them of some buzzword. Attitudes to science had changed — wearing a t-shirt with GEEK on it was now a statement rather than a punishment, IFLS had millions of readers, science comedy was a thing. I didn’t feel my self-appointed job needed doing anymore.

And now, having seen other PhD students and met other scientists, I thought I probably was good enough to do a doctorate. People at my previous job were very encouraging and supportive about that (Jenny, Sara, Marek, Anthony; thank you).

Back to the Lab: and a SciFi Future

Aged 28, I applied to the BCFN, because again I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I wanted to have lots of options and choices. I squeaked a place in the second round, and was stunned, and spent a long time on the phone from a French metal festival trying to confirm that I was, indeed, coming.

I came to do nanotechnology because I wanted to build the future. I wanted to use those beautiful, isolationist physics principles to do something. Gods know we have enough problems now — global warming, antibiotic resistance, increasing population, decreasing arable land, increasing energy needs — that pretty much everything could use improving. We certainly don’t have an abundance of materials to do it with. We need to do more with less, be more clever with what we have. We should use as little material as possible, make systems that automatically save energy, design things that just work based on their inherent properties. Take less, get more, be more efficient, be more adaptable, and put design into every molecule of what we do. I love sci-fi: I want life to be more like it.

My Life in Smart Materials

I was 29 when I decided I wanted to work in shape-changing materials. These could be items that react to their environment, or can be triggered to switch in and out of different roles. Examples are glasses made of memory metal that form back into shape when bent; lenses that become fatter, giving them more focusing power, when more light hits them (paywall here; related work open access here; and wooden walls that open vents when the weather is hot and close them down when it’s raining. I discovered this field when had a project to do on actuation (moving things) in nature, and found myself watching hours and hours of videos as extra-curricular activity. I thought then it might be something I would want to do.

Now, I’m building a 3D printer and developing a material for it to print that will react to changes in heat. The idea is to 3D print things that then change shape — adding a fourth dimension to printing. The comfort I feel when I am working on my machine actually feels more like my art than anything else I am used to. I don’t know quite how to do it or how it will turn out, but I just keep pushing on and working with what the environment gives me or what I find, and I solve the problems that come up until it gets dark and my arms and legs are sore and I’ve been hunched over it for hours. My material synthesis is much more procedural: things go in in the right order, there’s a set number of steps to go through, but then I get the nervousness and surprise of seeing if what I want to happen has happened (answer: sometimes).

So, I feel like my current work pulls my science and art and love of everything back together. I’m back in university, working in an interdisciplinary subject where I have permission to fall down holes researching seashells and nanobots. I also get to go deep, build things and spend some time with equations. I do outreach and communication on my blog (hello!) and on Twitter and in schools and at Science Showoff Bristol. I have energy and motivation to make things, including art, in my spare time. And I’m making something that will tell us about how to build self-assembling, smarter machines, because I for one want to live in a sci-fi future.

1. While I appreciate literature and art, I have no desire to contribute to a pile of subjective interpretations. I like definitive answers, a line you can draw in space time and say ‘this is true, for all of us’.

2. If you don’t count Frank N. Furter.

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