29 November 2010

The domain of textbooks

(Day Three) Lab meeting at 10 am in what feels like a subterranean room, despite the fact it is on the ground floor. The lighting in here is flat and artificial – the kind that sucks all the life out of you. I am the first to arrive, and so sit for a few minutes in the quiet (being gradually devitalised?) awaiting the arrival of who knows who. I am not sure where to sit at the table – is there a hierarchy of places? Does the boss always have the same position / chair? I chose what I hope will be an involved but inconspicuous seat and wait. The members of the group arrive in briefly interspersed dribs and drabs. I introduce myself and the names I am presented with in return stay with me for variable amounts of time. The boss breezes in, friendly and with an upbeat energy to him; it feels like he is often on the edge of laughter. After a few general words he introduces me and asks the members of the group to tell me who they are and what they are doing in the group, as they report on the status of their efforts. We work our way round the table and I make some (variously comprehensible) notes in my book (Fred: postdoc, optical modulators, encodes electrical signal to optics, integrating electronics and photonics. Rob: new PhD student, work following on from Renzo’s stuff, erascible gratings (runcible spoons?). Fuller’s is Graham’s favourite beer, etc.). When I am introduced to Ufang (postdoc, passive silicon photonic devices, multiplexing and demultiplexing, etc.), Graham mentions how excited they were when they found out that Dr Hu was coming to work in the group. I am again cheered by the humour. (I am also intrigued by Ufang’s lab book, open on the desk next to me, as it seems to be comprised almost exclusively of images and diagrams, with no visible text). The introductions continue; I know there are a Milosh and a Milan amongst the small throng, but am later confused as to which way round the names apply.

At one point a conversation evolves around the table concerned with the objectivity of experimentation, after one of the students has referred to following a certain course of testing as it looked like it was producing “better” results than others. Graham, who is evidently sharply aware of everything going on in this room, instantly picks up on and questions the comment. The profundity of the implications of this conversation do not appear to be lost on anyone, despite the relative subtlety with which it is approached. Education and learning are manifest.

I again meet Goran, who is a Royal Society Fellow, and senior member of the group. He had previously shown me around the department when I visited. He and I will, later today, speak at some length about the process of teaching, which he is evidently deeply interested in and concerned by, and learning, which I am also fascinated by. I am looking forward to attending some of his lectures in the coming weeks. After a little more general discussion of upcoming conferences, equipment failures, and with the date of the next meeting fixed, the meeting ends and we disperse. Back out of the manufactured lighting of the (apparent) ion beam underworld into the daylight; vitalities re-inflating; I blinking in response to another dose of intense exposure to unfamiliar words and names.

As I write I am conscious that I am intentionally trying to make myself unaccountable, unreliable - the chronology and order in which my missives are presented is nonlinear. Introducing deliberate paradox into my writings. Some words are presented as they were recorded at the time, from notes made in situ, while some are embellished with the flights of fancy that time and distance can convey. This is not a scientific document. I am not illustrating the world as the scientists are describing it – that is the domain of the textbooks. I am not working here as scientist, even thought that mind set is deeply embedded within me. I am here to explore and to understand, to misinterpret, to stimulate, to imagine. I wish to manipulate words to convey feelings, ideas, thoughts; to translate the science into another form; to embrace the freedom that my role as artist lends me.
Back home, Rosie is in the airing cupboard. We are all retreating to the proximity of sources of heat. Waking up this morning was, as the last few days, to feel the chill of exposed areas, and the knowledge that warmth will be regained (after the comfort of the bed had been left) only when the stove has been lit and got hot. Complaining would be churlish (I love this place, this beautiful place) and make me sound like a little old lady, ever obsessed by the weather and distracted by chilly bones. But it is cold here at the moment. (The toothpaste is extremely reluctant to come out of the tube when squeezed these last days, as it has gone solid - I believe it is a state referred to as being frozen. M + T expressed concern about the temperature of my bathroom while visiting last week – I fear these words will not reassure them). Maybe the intermittent bursts of central heating that the residence side of the residency are conveying will yet convince me that living in my rustic rural idyll could do with something of a more comforting coating of urban embellishment. Yet there is something of a basal excitement and aliveness associated with the pleasure of lighting a fire to get heat; an appreciation of the fundamental physicality of this world. And it is weirdly good to be bundled up in three t-shirts, three jumpers, a bodywarmer and a scarf as I write; my typing is a bit hampered as my arms are sticking out sideways as a result of all the padding.

26 November 2010

The width of a colour

Today is my niece’s birthday and I have failed to get her present into the post as I was waiting in for an electrician at the necessary time yesterday. Bad aunty (but I hope she’ll like the present, so am optimistic about being forgiven). It is after eight already and the glowing yellow light of the sun, as it appears above the field to the east, is illuminating my wall and the trees in front of me; the last leaves are stunning shades of golden orange and russet, still against the pale blue sky beyond. A beautiful morning.

I have only a few minutes as I must go to do another job for the day, but wanted to write something I had been thinking about yesterday with regard to truth and subjectivity, in art and in science, in fact and in fiction. It is not a new thought, to me, and when gone into properly is quite long (especially the fully illustrated version), but there is a kernel of it that I wanted to ponder here, since it is embedded within all that I set before you; my truth that I present to you.

Bugger... I have just rewritten the next sentence several times and scrapped them all – it seems that the truth is not being readily accessible just now; toying with me as it wriggles around in my head, knowing that time is chewing at my heels. Today is not the occasion for it to be laid bare here; it will not stay still long enough for me to pin it to this page. So instead I shall offer a thought; a question, which to me looks like it may be connected, but may just as well not be (and maybe has a very simple answer – if so please do illuminate me). As I sit here at the computer I have been looking out at the trees across the way and wondering how many shades of green or brown (etc) there are? (I believe it is a question that Pantone also consider, although they are probably interested in what difference the (human) eye can discriminate, which is a different question.) What I want to know is whether there is a smallest fundamental unit of wavelength? Since I understand photons as having a finite unit size this question also translates in my head as to whether there is something akin to a photon equivalent of colour change?

On that note I’ll go and get into another world for the day. Answers on a postcard please (and I’ll tell you about my Holmes and Watson thoughts tomorrow).

25 November 2010

Here and there


All is quiet here.
As quiet as a windy dusk. The trees undulate and ripple in the gusty wind. The last of the commuting seagulls head on past, northwards to the coast. The blackbirds and moorhen squawk and chatter as they settle down in the dimming. The first observed bat flits about, a pipistrelle I think, a regular dusky site this lone flier. A few big black birds, crows or rooks or similar, skirt the edges of the trees, then settle into their browning tops.

In the darkening light of dusk the gingko, quince yellow in the full light of the subdued November day, has become the tree in Egon Schiele’s drawing. Black stemmed with an understated tight violence of glowing orange leaves; embers along the charred skeletal branches. In the wind a few leaves lightly flutter, around and down. Most are, as yet, still held. Apparently they all go together; one day attached, the next the gnarly rigidity of the tree’s structure naked baring into the winter; its silhouette daily present in the months ahead.

And there

Last week I spent a day in the lab with Dave. He was preparing a sample for testing. Many minutes of fine tuning multitudinous knobs before ten-second experiments. Passing laser light along a waveguide, looking for losses. Microscale silicon and mere seconds of time to determine fundamentals of the physicality of this light passage.

The waveguide is being tested, designed, created. A scar in the surface of the disc. It is to pass light from point to point; pass electric current from point to point; to have both electrical and optical properties.

The light that is being projected along this silicon etching has a wavelength of 1550nm. It is in a single plane, having been passed through a polarisation filter and along polarisation-maintaining fibres. (The two possible planes are transverse electric (TE) and transverse magnetic (TM).) These planar wavelengths are in phase. This is called single mode, I think. Today it is the passive optical outputs of microscopic channels for these tightly constrained waves that are under scrutiny. We are looking for power loss in Maxender interferometers. No, my phonetic spelling in my notebook is wrong, I am unconsciously corrected, Mach Zehnder Interferometers, MZIs. Next to this name in my notebook I rapidly scrawl some words about the fact that the group are making phase modulations but want to make intensity modulators. Later, re-reading my notes, I do not understand what these are, or the differences between them, nor, in fact, what the MZI is for. In the last weeks I have learned a great deal but as yet it seems that the MZI remains mysterious.

Time shifts around between here and there, as does knowledge. Information initially superficially absorbed is broken down, reconsidered and regurgitated, slightly mutated by the process, partially congealed in a mire of other images and experiences. The process of gaining understanding is not a uniform one. Waves of all forms collide, disperse, intermingle. It began with a guileless and simple question about photomultipliers. The answer was given, but not comprehended. Still not comprehended; an as yet unreached destination on a voyage of discovery. This voyage looks set to travel out into the vast (limitless?) unmapped territories of human intellectual endeavour. The far reaches disappear into potential and discovery yet to be made. The unimagined and, as yet, unimaginable. We may believe that we have seen the earth – physical explorations recorded and globally shared through, for example, the electromagnetic radiation of the television – but in our minds and in our futures exist worlds of possibly infinite variety and creativity. Our needs, understanding, imaginations and capabilities will combine to create aspects of our ongoing existences in myriad forms.

24 November 2010

Better than Feynman

(Day one) Graham’s PA, Kelly, has organised all the bits of paper I need to sign to get me access to the library etc., and takes time to show me around, to familiarise me with this place. She has also given me keys to an office in which I have a (her!) desk (fear not, she has her primary desk elsewhere). (I had imagined that I was going to have a small corner of a lab bench on which to precariously pile my chaotic heap of bits of paper and books, topped by cameras with straps trailing, which would be perpetually in the way and knocked off at every frenetic experimental moment... Instead I have the prestigious anonymity of a desk in an office behind a largely closed door, along a long white corridor of largely closed doors. My name is almost instantly put on the door label. And the lights come on when you enter the room and go off if you sit still for long enough. I experiment with this latter trait. I wonder what Martin Creed would think.

The office is shared with a very friendly, jocular Spaniard. He is evidently intrigued by what I am going to be doing there, and entirely enthusiastic – obviously loves his subject (he is working on surface coatings, I gather). He tells me, among other things, that lasers shouldn’t actually work at all, theoretically. When I ask him to explain this comment he shows, in rapid English with a strong Spanish accent, accompanied by sketched drawings in my sketch book, how they do work (/ are believed to work...). I am left inundated by the waves of words, and with a few pencil lines and marks to take away, which almost instantly lose any little sense that they did contain at the outset. I make a mental note to return to this question when better versed in the ways and words of this world. And anyway, it is time for me to go and have lunch with the Boss.

As I walk between buildings I am struck by the claustrophobia and implicit attempts at control in the architecture of the main part of the campus; high buildings jostling together, surrounded by lots of landscaped, open space. To me the multi level walkways are confusing, and the building levels even more so. (I am later told (in seriousness?) that the floors are numbered according to how many meters above sea level they are. If Guildford weren’t so far inland I should imagine these numbers would be rather unnerving in the light of publicly postulated catastrophic climate change.) Kelly’s friendly greeting, as I finally find Graham’s office, is a calming antidote to the feeling of disorientation

Over lunch I mention to Graham that I have been trying to read QED by Richard Feynman, as an introduction to understanding the physics of light (I don’t mention that I’ve been trying to read it on and off for about two years now, and simply can’t make it fit into my head - I just find his assumptions, on which he builds the rest of his story, too incomprehensible / implausible to accept). Graham tells me that he is “better than Feynman”, which I find enormously encouraging; this residency is going to be OK. He then spends most of an hour trying to encourage some silicon photonics information into my head, and although I am somewhat overwhelmed by the language of interconnects, technology nodes, fabs, n-types and p-types, holes, junctions, III-V compounds, wafers, wave guides, band gaps and transistors, I think I do OK. I definitely absorb something, and maybe even ask one or two pertinent questions. Afterwards I have several pages of mixed gobbledegook in my sketchbook to show for it. 

As I leave he lightly hands me a copy of Nature Photonics, a special issue of the journal that was published this August, for me to do some background reading. He is well aware (and, I think, gently entertained by the fact) that it is currently effectively totally beyond my understanding, but optimistic that by the time he’s finished with me it’ll have some sort of a place in my currently overstuffed brain. (A few days later I delve in, but largely just to skim across the surface, picking up the words that float out most overtly – avalanche photodetectors, third harmonic generation, four wave mixing, microfluidics. There is so much in the language of this subject that is poetic and visual, new words and phrases invented to describe new phenomena and ideas; quantum dots, resonant tunnelling in carbon quantum wells, etc.)

After lunch I return, replete, to the office to try to digest some of what I have imbibed. The jocular Spaniard is heading downstairs to do some lab work and invites me to accompany him to have a look. He shows me a machine, all metallic and shiny, whose name slips straight out of my other ear, in which a mystically glowing plasma sheath is visible through a small window. He is coating a wafer, I believe. 

(image borrowed from www.123rf.com)

23 November 2010

Here and now

It is almost dusk. The light fading faster than it otherwise might as a result of an approaching cloud bank filling the previously clear sky. It has been a beautiful day, but increasing blusteriness this afternoon has been implying incoming inclemency. It feels like we may be due for gales tonight. I lit the stove a couple of hours ago so the room is warm and cosy already. Today has been a strenuously physical day of shifting logs (the dry ones to the storage shed, the as yet green ones to the drying area), clearing heaps of rotting wood, and generally trying to tidy up a little in lieu of the approaching winter. As I now sit to write my body feels grateful for the comfort of the chair. The scent of quinces is beginning to infiltrate my senses – I am making membrillo, and the pan of fruit is simmering in the kitchen. The fragrance infusing the house is reminding me of making it for the first time, a year ago; almost the first thing I did when newly arrived here.

For the last two-and-a-bit years my website has consisted of a splash page saying something along the lines of ‘there’ll be something here by November 12th, so come back and have a look sometime’. My initially accidental omission of writing the year to which the November 12th referred has served the unintended purpose of giving me licence (so I (re)assure myself) to ignore any requirement to update. (A friend of mine has subsequently referred to the process of checking to see if I had actually updated the site as being akin to going to a gallery and knowing that one’s favourite painting will always reassuringly be in the same place on the wall. I have two such rituals, one a small Dutch 17th century oil in the National Gallery, and the other a mid 20th century portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. When I’m on my pilgrimage to them I often also greet a former teacher’s favoured Piero della Francesca in the National, and a big, mysterious portrait in the Portrait Gallery, which intrigued an ex boyfriend.) But the time has come to perturb the lazy comfort of the annual inaccuracy and to update my museum of a site. Time to put forth something of my now, as I have severally promised.

Last week I spent two nights sleeping in my thirteen year old nephew’s top bunk. My intermittent life as an Artist in Residence may not be as glamorous as I could imagine, but it does have the compensations of central heating and a degree of ready urbanity; two things that shimmer with a comfortable glow as I look towards the dark depths of the approaching/ encroaching rural Cornish winter. My here and the there are rather dissimilar.

I was explaining to some friends yesterday about the residency, and realised how much I have learned already, in only a month. The conversation that initiated the application for the post was an attempt by me to understand how photomultipliers work (I still don’t, but I do now understand something of what the interconnect problem is, which at that time I hadn’t heard of). And as I now sit to write something of what that past month has included I realise it’s almost too late to be starting writing; my image of a ring resonator has already shifted from glowing glass doughnut to rigid lanes of light; my electronic engineering innocence has been corrupted with understanding.

But I am getting ahead of myself, I should introduce us all. Graham Reed and his group, based in the Department of Electronic Engineering at the University of Surrey, work on silicon photonics. My initial, uninformed, understanding of these words was of the passage of light through silicon (imaginings of rapturously luminescent glass sculptures), although they have a rather different way of explaining what it entails at www.siliconphotonics.co.uk. I (“artist”, formerly “scientist”) am spending ten months working among and alongside Graham’s group, in an Artist in Residence post that is funded by the Leverhulme Trust (www.leverhulme.ac.uk). Rather thrillingly I am based in the purportedly most hazardous building on the University campus. Before working as an artist I worked as a marine microbiologist, and so have an understanding of how research science in academia is. However, I haven’t studied physics and maths since school, so the general level of the real work that the group undertake is well beyond my knowledge and understanding. So far. But I am interested in interdisciplinarity, and the potential for catalysis of ideas and knowledge generation through integration of dissimilar skills, so I'm intrigued as to how my interaction there will shape and be shaped by silicon photonics. As artist I am making work in a range of media (drawing, photography, glass, sound, words, etc.) that are related to and impacted by the silicon photonics, but which also incorporate ideas that have previously suffused my work – light, photosynthesis, knowledge...
One aspect of the residency is that I’m attempting to document my side of the interaction; endeavouring to map my journey through the process of learning, exploring the tributaries of understanding. My primary vehicle in this effort is to be words, which I shall deposit here, dear reader, for your perusal, consideration and hopefully even enjoyment and stimulation. Written on this laptop somewhere in the mists of elsewhere, and transferred via the marvels of silicon (and myriad other processes) to you, in your here and now.
(For variously related other words and images of mine see the very gradually evolving aforementioned www.emmahambly.net).

Hence what follows (or maybe, in the (psycho?) geography of a blog, precedes) is to be an irregularly updated record, with varying degrees of understanding, incomprehension and sophistication, of here and there and things that happen within and between the two, from when it began, until the end of July 2011.

So here goes.