Michael Conterio is a physics PhD student at Cambridge University working in the Toshiba Quantum Information Group. He is also a part time comedian and science communicator and can be regularly heard on the ‘Burst the Bubble’ podcast.
All the best ideas it seems, are those that are obvious after the fact.
On becoming interested in science
Partially I just really liked maths at school and then I realised at some point when I was in secondary school that I could actually use it for so much more, it wasn’t just this abstract concept but it was a way of describing the world around. I can’t think of a moment when that clicked, it might’ve been during an episode of Star Trek…
And watching ‘How 2‘ was one of things that got me hooked. I used to love that series, I had the book and everything. Just all the little experiments that they did. A bit later on, as much as I loved biology and finding out about things I actually found I enjoyed more the pureness of physics, I’m sure I’ve made loads of enemies of biologists now!
On working in physics
I’m trying to create a reliable source of single photons, so individual particles of light and basically I want to get it down to, effectively, you can press a button and a single particle of light is fired. So I used what are called semi conductor quantum dots, which, when you grow indium arsenide very slowly on gallium arsenide you form little tiny islands and they are so small, only a couple of nanometres in size, you can actually trap individual electrons in there. And because you can control the individual electrons, when they lose energy they’ll produce just one single particle of light.
One thing that it can be used for is what we call quantum cryptography which is a way of making perfectly secure messages. And using single photons for this, you share, you use the photons to share a key between you and the person you’re sending the message to but if you had more than one photon someone can steal one of the photons without you noticing and therefore your message won’t be secure whereas if you have just, every single time, one photon, if someone tries to measure that photon they will change its state and you’ll be able to pick up the fact that someone’s been listening in on your photons and so you can say, ‘This isn’t secure, I’m going to try again.’
On corporate science
I think it’s a really good thing when companies get involved, because they’ve got the money and even though they’re actually looking for something out of it, there’s still quite a bit, in my case, of relatively fundamental research going on as well. So sometimes it’s very focused on the product but other times they’re thinking long term. A lot of science is about thinking long term, trying to increase the knowledge of humanity as well so then it’s fine, it’s just a, I’m sure some companies just drive too hard a commercial thing but I think when there’s a chance to actually explore around as well that’s really useful.
On the importance of curiosity
It just seems like something that should be fundamental to everyone. It’s just, there’s so much interesting stuff out there, the world is such an amazing place and to just let that pass you by just seems like a bit of a waste and, yeah, I find it hard to imagine not asking at least some questions. People might ask different questions, everyone’s different, but at least being able to ask some questions is the point.
On the appeal of Richard Feynman
It’s probably the whole package but the thing that really got me is how he can explain things that you possibly hadn’t even thought about in that way, so simply, and just him, sitting there in a chair, with his voice, telling you things, you just let go, just how, one video I saw of his was how trains stay on tracks and go around corners and it’s a really simple idea but it’s a sort of idea you, ah, who was the first person to come up with that? And the way he explains it, it becomes obvious and all the best ideas it seems are those that are obvious after the fact. But yeah, it’s just the way he can make that so simple.