Week 4: A Workshop to Remember

This week, I attended a three day workshop titled Modern Trends in Solid State Quantum Physics. 13 highly cited and prolific professors in the field of quantum physics from all over the world gathered at IST to present, discuss, and learn from each other. I was lucky to sit in on these lectures.

The opening of the first day was by Harry Atwater of Caltech. His presentation title was Tunable Materials and Metasurfaces – from Quantum to Perfect. “From Quantum to Perfect” was a title that surely stuck in my head. The content, however, fell off my radar. After the break, Frank Koppens presented on quantum non-local effects in graphene plasmonics. Now this talk was fascinating. Essentially, Koppens talks about how the velocity of waves usually travels faster the velocity of the particle, but what would happen if you made them same speed? That is new physics. You can imagine pushing a person on a swing, but instead of being stationary, you are now running with the person on the swing. If you move with the ‘move’, physics changes and in a material, conductivity changes. To achieve this, he utilized non-local effects of the material which means changing something a distance away from a point, affects the conductivity at the point. What stood out to me was his style of articulation and his ground up, axiom based approach to physics. He reminds me that it is important to have a solid foundation in physics.

The presentations later in the first day and the second day all quite escaped me. They were topics of topological physics, berry phases, and lots of theoretical research involving complex matrix math.

The third day drew me in for the topics were related to my current research: nanophotonics. Jelena Vuckovic from Stanford University was first to present. Her research was phenomenal and fascinating. Essentially, her group was able to break the traditional requirement/notion of periodicity in waveguides and photonic beamsplitters. Their approach was just to optimize given the effect they want, and let the optimization generate the best configuration. What resulted was a design unordinary. Marko Loncar from Harvard presented next. His research runs alongside our research groups but instead of using silicon, he uses diamond! In particular, the electron spin of nitrogen vacancy diamonds have excellent coherence times, which is crucial for quantum effects as I believe we are then able to hold a certain state longer and not lose information. He described his devices, methodology, and his future goals. Lastly, Michal Lipson from Columbia University, presented. She motivated her talk about why we care about nanophotonics, giving a history of how silicon was traditionally horrible at containing light. With the advance of silicon technology, engineered to such an advanced state, silicon is now a material that has potential for photonic devices. She describes how in computing, the transferring of data is what consumes power, leading to companies like Google or Amazon to putting data centers in the sea. But if information was transferred via light, then there would be no power dissipation. This is the essence of future telecommunications. After the motivator, she transitioned into her research and succinctly presented her research ideas, progress, and future steps.

The workshop taught me a lot about how to approach science research. The key is to ground yourself in the axioms, know the fundamentals and build from there. Seeing the key researchers in the photonic field assembled in one room and watching them present gave me a look into what life would be like if I decided to pursue academia as a principal investigator and different presentation styles. The work is mentally challenging but rewarding in that each and everyday, you are doing something nobody has done before; an exploration into the unknown.

Often times I think Professors already know everything there is to know. But watching Harry Atwater listen attentively to other speakers and asking questions afterwards reminded me that we are all always learning! In some ways, we are always students.

Next semester, I hope to take Michal Lipson’s Photonic Devices course. For the rest of the summer, I am to read a lot and build up a strong fundamental understanding of physics before starting my second Bachelor’s degree.