Monday, November 21, 2011

Nanoparticle Jive—Tomas Martin

I started writing the story that would later become 'Nanoparticle Jive' when I was halfway through my PhD in nanophysics at the nanoparticle-jiveUniversity of Bristol. I don't know how many of you are familiar with the work that goes into a doctorate, but over the course of three hard years I gradually came to refine my definition of a PhD as a 'voluntary nervous breakdown with graphs'.

Research is a gruelling process that often requires long hours trying to make your experiment work, but it is the existential angst of not knowing  the right answer  that really got to me. When you start a science PhD, you are given a task - some small aspect of science that is unknown, no one knows how to solve it and it's your job to go away for 3 or 4 years and work it out. I was lucky enough to finish in just over three years, but I know people whose doctorate took far longer.

I studied physics at the university of Bristol, England, and started a PhD because it was related to a field I was extremely passionate nanoparticle-jiveabout - solar power. My task was to research the modification of artificial diamond crystals with lithium, in order to make a semiconductor that could potentially generate electricity from heat. The eventual plan was to concentrate sunlight onto these crystals using large mirrors, giving a more scalable solution to concentrated solar power than the existing water-based turbine systems being built in deserts around the world.

Although using diamond sounds like it should be some expensive boondoggle, it is only natural, dug-up diamond that is expensive. In labs such as the one I worked in, it is possible to grow artificial diamond on a fairly cost-effective basis, using high pressures and temperatures to compress graphite, or growing diamond films using gas phase chemistry. For the first few years, the problem seemed impossible. I had many experiments that did nothing, and many days where I'd be in the lab for 10 or 12 hours without achieving anything.

I've always been a writer alongside being a scientist, and began to make my first few breakthroughs into the professional SF short fiction market as I began my PhD. The challenges of balancing slaving away in the lab on tiny slices of diamond in vacuum chambers with coming home and being creative was an interesting one. On the one hand, writing science fiction was a great outlet for my frustrations at the end of the day, but on the other hand the creative demands of trying to solve what seemed an insurmountable challenge at times left me drained of any desire to write. I was caught between two masters - science and art.

'Nanoparticle Jive' was a story that evolved out of that conflict. I'd already jotted down a few notes about the other part of the story - the reputation based economy, based on a short little story about the future of social networks. It also linked back into ideas I'd been reading about sustainability, the environment, and the economy, such as efforts by Nobel prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz and others to use something other than GDP to measure progress in a way that better reflected the world's needs. It seemed to me that social networks and the way the popularity of people on places like twitter and the blogosphere could easily work as a social currency, especially in a world where global warming and peak resources restrict the amount the economy can grow. People require such things as a sign of their status in the world, and even if the money dried up and capitalism struggled to a halt, I thought that those people who find their way into careers like investment banking would find other ways to get to the top of the status pile - which is where the idea of a reputation based economy emerged.

I began a story along similar lines, about a kid who is desperately nanoparticle-jivetrying to escape the poverty of his family upbringing by gaining reputation and becoming a famous DJ. The story had some game, it flowed nicely, but when I got about a third in, I ran out of steam. I needed more conflict to drive the story, something to give the main character Brendan a real choice. My fellow writers on the writers' forum Codex helped a lot to point this out when I had the story out for critique.

The struggles I was experiencing in my PhD naturally presented themselves as a solution. I began to craft that conflict between art and science into the main story, detailing Brendan's struggle to choose between selling himself out to gain the reputation he craves or pursuing an exciting scientific project. Once I had that conflict in place, the story fell into place, and I'm very happy with the result. I think it's one of my best works, and I hope you'll agree.

I received my doctorate in early October 2011, and left academia for a career in the renewable industry, where I can work hard in the day towards an achievable goal and still come home with enough brain space to write. A month later, this story was published in IGMS. That seems strangely fitting to the themes presented in 'Nanoparticle Jive.' In a way, I've made the opposite choice to Brendan about what I want from my life, choosing my art over science. In my case, I don't feel like I'm selling myself out. It's more like coming home.

--Tomas Martin

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