Building a life out of seemingly disparate experiences and interests, Jack Carter is both an experimental nanotechnologist and an electronic musician. Aptly creating music under the moniker, Scientific Dreamz of U, Jack examines fields and frequencies in both his academic and musical pursuits. From the office of Experimental Solid State Physics at Imperial College, Jack warmly shares his accounts of nano-size knots, artistic epithets, and the enduring tragedy of science in culture.
FCLTY: Can you tell us about yourself and the paths that led to what you’re doing now?
I’m currently a London-based experimental nanotechnologist interested in what happens to magnets when we shrink them down to tiny length scales. In my spare time I make music and play records for dancing/relaxing to.
I’ve been into science & music since I was a wee lad so neither is a big surprise. Science as a career has come about partly from a real interest and passion but also as a convenient way to hide from real life.
I’ve tried real jobs in the past and academia is much more forgiving in many ways. It has its own curses though!
I’m still mildly shocked that anyone outside my bedroom is interested in listening to my music. I had fully resigned myself to a lifetime of solo tinkering.
FCLTY: With the moniker, Scientific Dreamz of U and your NTS radio show ‘Kestrel Explorations’, you seem keen on exploring both scientific and mind-expanding experiences. Is there any correlation between the themes that you explore in your music and your academic work?
I think they’re quite separate really. I spend all day looking at very precise physical quantities and trying to make unambiguous conclusions based on them with as much accuracy as possible. This can be really exhausting and it’s a massive release to get home and program a soothing synth line through some pretty reverb and delay. It doesn’t have to mean or say anything, it just has to sound nice. What ‘nice’ even is is super subjective so I don’t have to worry about whether others will disagree with me, whereas in science this will get you in big trouble.
FCLTY: With track names like ‘Spatial Phase Inversion’, ‘Monopole Vortex Field’, and ‘Visionz Of An Abstract Plane’, there still seems to be some threads of your physics work in your music. Are they meant to be direct references or more of a personal lark?
There are so many obvious or uninspiring names out there for artists as well as tracks, I think it’s a nice opportunity to have some fun and seems a shame when people don’t let themselves loose a little. My own names were an attempt to do the opposite, to make people think a little bit and maybe if they google the names, even, they could learn about a cool bit of science.
The artist name was also a conscious attempt to do something that was as far away from macho as I could. At the time I chose it there was a lot of dark and aggressive imagery around, guns and skulls on record sleeves and things like ‘tough’ and ‘raw’ used as positive descriptors. Dance music is already such a boy’s club, I didn’t want to contribute any further to that construct.
Also, when I go out to dance it’s with the hope of feeling some sort of unity and connection with a crowd, a violent and macho aesthetic is the last thing on my mind.
FCLTY: Definitely, I would say that there are few realms in which macho-ism seems appropriate. What about the ‘tough’ and ‘raw’ world of physics? Can you clue us into your physics research and its overarching goals?
My work focuses on making tiny little magnetic wires, around a thousandth of a millimeter long (we call this length a micron) and a few millionths of a millimeter thick (and this one a nanometer). That’s really small! A particle of light is somewhere around half a micron wide.
We investigate the properties of these tiny wires and try to find cool things to do with them. The wires are a little bit like nano versions of the bar magnets you may have played with at school or even have on your fridge, with a blue south pole and red north pole. Imagine a string leading from the south pole to the north pole with little arrows on it showing which way’s north. Part of our research is looking at how the behaviour of this string changes as you shrink the magnet down to the nanoscale.
Does it get stiffer? Does it stay nice and neat or will the ends tangle and fray? One trick I’ve developed over the past year is how to tie the string into a little stable knot—this is only possible once we’ve shrunk down to the nanoscale and it creates a completely new effect.
FCLTY: I was definitely not aware that nanoscale strings and knots were so dynamic, nor even possible. What kinds of applications could be developed that I might see the effects of these knots and strings in other technologies?
Modern computers could store data by counting the knots in the string and even do calculations using them. This could allow us to replace the processor and hard drive of computers with a single combined unit that handles both tasks at once.
We also look at what happens when we stick a whole bunch of the wires together into a big honeycomb. This structure has some really wild properties and may even be able to simulate the behavior of neurons in our brains. We currently do all our simulating of minds using computer software, the honeycomb of magnetic nanowires could allow us to make a real physical artificial brain!
FCLTY: I understand that Ph.D research can be an emotionally gruelling and trying endeavor. How often do you discover something completely new? What has been your most surprising or interesting discovery?
It’s very rare that we come across something completely new. Almost all of science is done by incrementally pushing existing ideas. For example, if one group of researchers has found a cool effect by making tiny iron wires, another group may try to make the same wires but mix in a tiny bit of copper and see if anything changes. Normally not that much changes but sometimes you get lucky. A lot of cool stuff is discovered by accident when one of these small tweaks completely changes the observed effects.
My magnetic knot-making trick has been my one nice new thing. People have been interested in these knots for a while but don’t really know how to make them.
I realized completely by accident that a very common piece of lab equipment would make them easily but only if you’re using it wrong. Luckily, I used it wrong!
FCLTY: You seem to have carved quite a unique path between producing music and researching physics—these two routes are not generally traversed in parallel. What would help people diversify their thinking and engage in science in more organic ways, as they personally see fit?
Improving the quality of science education in schools is extremely important. Current curriculums are really restrictive. I for one was bored to death in a lot of my pre-university education and this really shouldn’t happen. There’s so much cool science out there, teachers need to be freed up to give kids a taste of the wacky stuff before making them drag a block up a slope. If you told a bunch of 10 year olds that time travel is definitely true and that humans have already done it then I really think it would prick their ears up. There are obviously challenges to this as it takes good teachers to do it well, but I feel it’s something we should aim for.
The idea of science as this tower of impenetrable knowledge, incomprehensible to the uninitiated, is a real shame.
I think it shows very clearly how poor our current science education and communication methods are. I have a much deeper wonder and respect for the natural world from understanding things like relativity and quantum mechanics. The way that reality is put together is so much weirder than any fiction you’ve ever encountered. Anyone can be a scientist!
FCLTY: Definitely. It seems like better science education would help general scientific literacy in society as a whole. What would help the general public understand what’s going on in science?
I think researchers should be encouraged and incentivized to present their work in terms that are understandable to someone without a university education. For example, a scientist could accompany the super-technical description of their work, usually aimed at other scientists, with a much shorter explanation for those outside of academia who might be curious.
This is usually not as big of a challenge as scientists think and if you can’t do so then it’s normally a good sign that you don’t understand your research yourself.
Research is mainly funded by taxpayers money, I think they have a right to see the cool stuff that’s being done with it. As well, we could really do with an abolition or at least massive reform of the current paid-access journal model. It’s completely crazy. Between the taxpayer’s funding of the research, the scientists’ unpaid application to journals to publish the work, the unpaid peer reviews done by other scientists, to the public having to pay to view the results, both the scientists and the public do not benefit from the manner in which scientific literature is currently developed. A new generation of free-to-access journals is starting to spring up which is great to see; I really think we need to push for free access to all public-funded research.
My personal work is almost definitely not going to be directly useful to anyone apart from other researchers in my field, but I’m sure it will indirectly contribute to more useful things in the future.
FCLTY: In addition to your scholastic and musical interests, I can’t help but notice threads of spirituality and New Age elements that are referenced in your music. So as a final question, how do you resolve the mystical and the physical in your work?
I’m interested in spirituality, mostly in the sense of what is there about reality that is even weirder than we can possibly imagine. Imagine explaining quantum mechanics to someone from the 1300’s, you’d be burned at stake for witchcraft!
Spirituality is concerned with the currently unexplainable in a way which I think science could benefit from somewhat.
I also enjoy the new age aesthetic and the positivity which comes with it. I don’t really go in for a lot of it though and swathes of it are complete BS. Still never been for reiki!
Jack Carter’s Published Papers
➝ Magnetoresistance and the anomalous Hall effect—N. A. Porter, J. C. Gartside, and C. H. Marrows
➝ A novel method for the injection and manipulation of magnetic charge states in nanostructures—J. C. Gartside, D. M. Burn, L. F. Cohen, W. R. Branford
(Header image source—Yong-Lei Wang and Zhili Xiao)