Lancashire, Squash, Music
I’m from a small city in the North-West of England, where I used to be involved in squash coaching and in the rock music scene before I went to University. By the time I left this city, I’d coached junior national champions (in addition to being one myself), set up and ran the sound and lighting for gigs, and also recorded and produced albums for local bands.
Born a physicist
Physics had always been an interest, from TV documentaries to books in the primary-school library, notably the Usborne Science Encyclopedia (if anyone can find me the hardback edition with a parachute and a CD on the main cover, I’ll be your friend for life!) Many childhood physics curiosities (e.g. why do coco-pops clump together in a bowl of milk) were answered during my later physics education, while other questions (e.g. how does self-awareness exist) are apparently beyond the scope of modern physics. In the case of the coco-pops question, the milk forms a concave meniscus around the coco pop grains, resulting in a slight increase of gravitational potential energy. Combined with the low inertia of the grains, they self-organise into a more optimal configuration – that is, they clump together to reduce the amount of milk that is “raised” to form a meniscus. There are mesoscale forces at work too, but they would take too long to describe on here…
My now somewhat-battered and torn copy of RadioShack’s “Getting Started in Electronics” and various RadioShack spring-and-wire electronics kits, later combined with an interest in music technology resulted in shocks, blown fuses, guitars, amplifiers, strobe lights and a MIDI-compatible sub-£100 electric drum kit design. R.I.P. RadioShack UK.
I inadvertently learnt to program in BASIC and C at a single-digit age after reading that computers can do mathematics really quickly. Most, if not all, of my programming before age 10 was to “cheat” on maths homework – in the UK, a maths assignment is typically “apply the same boringly simple method over and over again to solve the following 30 questions”, which could be done in five minutes instead of an hour thanks to Microsoft QuickBASIC… But computers while “highly skilled” are incredibly “stupid”, so to “teach” a computer how to do a task, one must understand the task much better than they would need in order to simply do the task themselves. I accidentally developed a strong understanding of mathematics and programming as a result of laziness and somewhat “cheating” with mind-numbing UK maths homework.
In addition to the Usborne Science Encyclopedia in the primary-school library, there was one other particularly inspirational book. Unfortunately I can not remember the title or the author, but it was about lasers and holograms and was written/illustrated in such simple terms that a 9-year old understood it. This book sparked an interest which later resulted in me following a masters degree in Photon Science, getting into photography, and seeking further study in the field of photonics.
Leeds, Aikido, Counterstrike, Maths and Physics
At the University of Leeds, I studied Maths and Physics in addition to being involved in various societies (sports, music, dance). I represented the University regionally and/or nationally at squash, shodokan aikido and tenpin bowling. A couple of my own musical compositions from my time at Leeds are available here and here. Besides those, other sports that I enjoyed include trampolining and taekwondo. I was the social secretary for the aikido society, which was challenging since most of the members didn’t drink… During my first year at Leeds I traded private maths lessons for alcohol resulting in a very cheap first year.
Manchester, Nuclear sensors and Photon Science
After Leeds, I went on to do a masters degree in photon science at the University of Manchester. The sports and activities set-up at Manchester is absolutely terrible, so I did considerably better in this degree than I had back at Leeds… It was an extremely useful and well-taught course, and I’m somewhat disappointed that it fell victim to the government cuts. I knew beforehand that I couldn’t afford both the tuition fees and the rent for the whole duration of the course, so I had to find a source of income during the course. Just as I hit my overdraft, I secured a paid placement in the northeast of England with a company called TracerCo, who develop nucleonic instrumentation. In simple terms, this technology can look through inch-thick steel walls on chemical vessels and pipelines, and give information about the density of the material inside, how full a vessel is, how fast the material is flowing, and whether the pipe is damaged. This placement formed the project for my masters dissertation, and my best feature detection algorithm to overcome a particular problem with some instruments was loosely based on tuning a guitar by ear via natural harmonics.
PhD, photography and engineering
Everyone on my masters course who wanted to do a PhD afterwards immediately got onto a PhD upon completing the course, including myself. While the others stayed in the high-flying world of physics and photonics, I somewhat recklessly rushed into chemical engineering. It was during my first year here that I finally made the move from film photography to digital, which now comprises most of the content on this website. I also worked for a few months as a lab demonstrator, which was surprisingly rewarding. The PhD project initially appeared to be very mathematical, and I hoped that it would also let me get deeper into digital electronics, but after a year I realised that the main objective of the project seemed to be to find a solution that someone else has already developed, then buy it and demonstrate it (with many forms to fill out in the process) – or in summary: bureaucracy and cargo-culting.
As a physicist and electronics/software hobbyist used to designing and developing my own technologies, this was quite an uncomfortable position to be in. Due to the lack of challenge or ongoing development, I started to make mistakes in my work, and mathematical tasks which were previously second-nature became difficult. Despite this, I did manage to produce one innovative/hackish utility, the code for which is available on Github. I left the PhD during the second year, and looked for a course or project that would start pushing me again.
Beyond the PhD
CERN, LHC++, funding woes
I applied to a PhD programme based at Manchester and CERN, to develop a high energy electron accelerator driven by the fast protons from the Large Hadron Collider. This would be achieved by proton-driven plasma wake-field acceleration, an exciting technique in need of a shorter name (PDPWFA isn’t the most pleasant of acronyms).
The University of Oxford have achieved amazing results using a similar technique, laser driven plasma wake-field acceleration (LDPWFA). They produced a GeV-scale electron accelerator which fits in my hand. Upon visiting the Clarendon laboratory, it was introduced as “our benchtop GeV accelerator”, although it was considerably smaller than most “benchtop” devices found in a physics lab. For comparison, the two-mile long RF accelerator at SLAC produces 50-GeV electrons whereas Oxford’s 3cm device achieves 2% of this energy in 0.001% of the distance.
Unfortunately, despite having no control over the budget for the chemical engineering PhD, I was apparently accountable for it, so was thus not eligible for full funding on the CERN PhD which threw a spanner in the works. While I was very disappointed to have missed out on one of the most cutting edge physics projects in the world due to some bureaucracy, this forced me to look overseas and to realise that English students actually have better opportunities and funding in most of continental Europe than in their own home country. Study in Scandinavia and Finland interested me, partly as I have met very interesting people who studied at universities in those regions, however I struggled to find a sufficiently interesting project there.
Animation and Artificial Intelligence
While looking for interesting work/courses, I decided to catch up on the past decade of developments in OpenGL (a 3D graphics technology). After learning the new rendering pipeline, the shading language, and writing my own very basic game engine to tie it all together, I produced a few short animations to test my understanding of the graphics pipeline.
The “Machine Learning” online course on Coursera, provided by Andrew Ng of Stanford University is an excellent course (albeit lacking in mathematical rigour). I discovered it half-way through the course, but thankfully most of the material at this point was introductory programming and mathematics for all the non-scientists out there. The course is well-structured and quite practical – assignments involved developing algorithms to predict outcomes of future events, based on the outcomes of similar past events (predicting microchip defects); developing an email spam filter; finding groupings and trends in high-dimensional datasets. Following the Machine Learning course, I launched a community project to produce an introductory machine learning online textbook for the course (and beyond). A partial draft of this is available here. Given the lack of mathematical detail in the course, it wasn’t surprising that I (along with pretty much everyone else, I’d assume) scored 100%. Fancy certificate
I applied to the EuroPhotonics masters programme, with the hope of continuing onto the EuroPhotonics PhD upon completion. A funded, high-end photonics pathway including regular travel between Spain/Germany/France almost seemed too good to be true!
I decided not to submit my application to the LDPWFA project at the University of Oxford, since it was subject to the same UK funding barriers as the CERN project, and also as it involved very little travel. While Oxford is a beautiful little city (and would have inspired several photo albums on this site), I want to branch out of the UK. The PDPWFA project at CERN would have enabled me to meet scientists and engineers from around the world when at CERN, however the distributed nature of the EuroPhotonics masters programme would provide ample travelling and networking, while giving me a much more diverse experience in many more areas of physics and also allowing me to see more of Europe.
I went for a 14-day backpacking trip from Poland through to Estonia. On my “last” day in Estonia, I received a rejection email from EuroPhotonics. Being in the company of Aussies and Kiwis, it didn’t take long for people to notice my change of mood and to attempt to “cure” it with Jägerbombs. Long story short – I missed the bus back to Riga, where my return flight to the UK would have been from. I considered booking another bus for the next day, but the Australian mindset had grown on me; I had no urgent reason to return to the UK now so why not stay in Estonia for a bit longer? I alternated between working and travelling for around a year, until eventually finding a balance between the two which allowed me to visit another country every month. Almost two years later, I’m very thankful to my Australasian friends for stopping me from returning to the UK!
While in Estonia I was contacted by a UK-based accelerator, “Entrepreneur First” (EF). Initially, it seemed a bit gimmicky and I wasn’t too interested however this changed as I researched deeper into their background. They are a rapidly growing deep-tech accelerator which takes on individuals based on their personal merits, rather than taking on existing teams with existing start-up backgrounds. Despite always being months away from going bust, they produced an impressive portfolio of deep-tech companies – and have since been able to get much better funding (now measured in years instead of weeks).
My main barrier to entering the masochistic start-up world was people – I simply did not have a decent pool of friends / connections who would also be willing to take on the start-up lifestyle and risks and who also were of a similar skill level to me. Entrepreneur First (EF) solved this problem for me very effectively, via their unusual recruiting and filtering processes. After spending years turning down Finance and IT job offers/invitations purely due to them requiring re-location to London, I now look forward to starting in London in a few weeks time with EF.
Had EF met my expectations, I now realise that it would not have been enough to keep me in this dystopian 20th-century shit-hole of a city (London). But EF exceeded my expectations of them considerably so far. I’ve previously heard people say that “London is great as long as you’re rich” however you can put sugar and cherries on a turd all you like – but it’s still a turd.