Date posted: September 3rd 2019
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One last post as I delve deep into the makings of fusion energy
The last couple of years of my life have been filled with many challenges and new experiences—but above all, lots of excitement. To sum it up, I had the privilege to live in Berkeley for two years, bought an electric vehicle1, turned 30, got married, landed a dream job in Boston, AND got a puppy!
a goal I had set years ago↩
This book is no joke!↩
Chief Scientific Officer↩
Chief Operating Officer↩
Low Temperature Superconductors↩
High Temperature Superconductors↩
Still needs improvement, I’ve always been a little slow in social situations↩
Wait… No, don’t take it easy… read, write, and learn as if your life depended on it! ↩
I can’t begin to describe how incredibly grateful I am for all of this good fortune that has come my way, or how thankful I am to the people who have supported me and helped make all of this a reality. However, talking about my luck is not the reason I am writing this. Instead, I believe I owe an explanation to the few dozen people who follow my blog—given that it has been over two years since I last published on it.
My lack of posting has to do with two things: 1) the kind of books I’ve read since my last post, and 2) the aforementioned job in Boston. So, I’d like to write about these two things—as well as a few words on the conclusion of my blog.
The books I’ve read since my last post
There were several books I dove into since my Merchants of Doubt post, but each of these had a reason not to write a post about, here is a brief synopsis of each:
Demon Haunted World, by Carl Sagan
Horoscopes, UFOs, ghost stories, crop circles, magic, pathological sciences, and many more fantasies are exposed here for what they are, a fraud! At the same time, Carl laments the large number of passionate followers that such beliefs can have despite their lack a single trace of credible evidence. But aside from showing how ridiculous all of these are (with exquisite detail, facts, reasoning, and historical context), Carl also goes beyond simple criticism and shows that the scientific method is one of the most effective tools we’ve come up with to help us discern what is true and what is not. Furthermore, he emphasizes that we don’t have to be scientists by profession to develop our own “baloney detection kit” (this is what he calls critical thinking). Carl also expresses frustration about the ease with which people fall for sensational stories, and reflects on the fact that such stories are always detrimental to the advancement of humanity—regardless of how harmless they seem at first—and quite often become dangerous with time. It is a wonderful read with a transcendental message, given that charlatans and con artists trying to take advantage of other people will exist as long as humanity does.
The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by Mohandas Gandhi
Mohandas Gandhi's auto-briography was a must-read for me, given that before reading it I (embarrassingly) thought Gandhi was some kind of religious leader like the Dalai Lama. But as you may know, Gandhi was an Indian lawyer who migrated to South Africa and became an activist for Indian immigrants rights. After gaining some fame and momentum (and almost getting lynched for his activism), he returned to India to keep pushing the British Crown for labor fairness and lower taxes on Indian citizens. One of his most popular and defiant actions against the British government happened in 1930, when he challenged the salt tax by marching 240 miles to Dandi in order to make a few grams of salt without paying taxes. During this march, he was followed by thousands of people and television cameras. This made his protest famous worldwide and put tremendous pressure on the British government. Eventually, Gandhi’s actions led to India’s independence. However, what makes Gandhi’s life remarkable—and sets him aside from other revolutionaries—is his peaceful mode of protest, called Satyagraha. Through Satyagraha he accomplished more than anyone thought possible, and in the process, he left enough inspiration around the world to make Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and others use similar tactics of non-violence and civil disobedience. Unfortunately, India’s independence was still a bloody event which saw many Muslims die by the hand of Hindu people and vice versa. This conflict ultimately took Gandhi’s life, and to his dismay, his beloved countrymen decided to separate into two countries: India and Pakistan—something that still has bloody repercussions today. Obviously his auto-biography doesn’t go as far as his death, in fact it didn’t even include the salt march, but it does talk a lot about his vegetarianism, spirituality, celibacy, and how all of these practices tie together to facilitate Ahimsa and Satyagraha. I particularly loved when he spoke about certain books that left a significant impact on his life and guided his actions towards a more stable and peaceful state of mind.
The selfish gene, by Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins is a hero of mine. I wanted to get to know his development as a writer and as a scientist; therefore I started with his first book. This book is a tribute (and an extension) to The Origin of Species. Richard goes a little further than Charles Darwin to show that living organisms (including humans) are slaves to their genes. But Richard doesn’t refer to the collective genetic material as such, but instead to each one of the basic building blocks of our DNA. Each gene—whether we are talking about the gene responsible for the color of our eyes or the gene that makes us crave sugary things—manipulates our brains (and therefore our actions) in order to guarantee their survival, not ours. Obviously if we survive they get passed on, but to be honest, they don’t care much about our wellbeing—we are just a vehicle by which they stay alive—hence “the selfish gene”... get it? What is more, these genes are also competing against each other, and they have been in a constant free-for-all battle since the beginning of life—all trying to replace their competing counterparts and fighting to ensure the survival of their kind. Richard has a plethora of wonderful examples of animal behavior which illustrate this concept, and I found fascinating to see how these examples often applied to people I know.
Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman
A pulitzer prize winner. This book is a wonderful summary of the events that unfolded in Europe between July 28th and September 5th, 1914. That August was technically the first month of the first World War. Barbara Tuchman provides an incredible amount of factual and mind-blowing detail while still delivering a story with much panache and personality. The thing that blew my mind the most about this sad episode for humanity is the fact that the assacination of archduke Franz Ferdinand was just an excuse for Germany to open the floodgates and release 1.5 million soldiers destined to engulf several cities in Denmark as they made their way to Paris. To summarize (grossly), Franz Ferdinand (Austrian archduke) was assassinated in Sarajevo by some Serbian nationalists in June 28th, causing Austria to declare war on Serbia on July 28th. Once Germany announced her “faithful support” towards Austria, a series of very stressful discussions happened inside every government building of every nation in Europe. The question was whether to remain neutral, or whether to join the war. Russia’s ties to Serbia made it very clear which side they were on, but France and the UK were not certain if they wanted any part in the war. To me, the inconceivable aspect of this war, is that even before the teams were established (i.e. before France and the UK decided they would join Serbia and Russia), Germany already had millions of soldiers marching towards Paris!
Even more astonishing, is the fact that if you read the book while ignoring the well-known outcome of the war, a German victory seems imminent. The sheer power of the German Army was virtually unstoppable!
In the end, Germany ran out of steam right outside of Paris, exposing their flank (on a weird strategic turn) for France to launch an attack on September 5th—effectively ending the German momentum. After this bloody August, the entire continent would fall in a gridlock which would last four years and would see some 15 to 19 million deaths.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil de Grasse Tyson
A glimpse at how the universe works. Tons of fascinating and mind-blowing facts, but I’d be interested to hear what someone not familiar with the subject thinks about the book. I loved it, but mainly because I’m familiar with the topic. I remember nodding and smiling as I read it saying to myself “ah, yes, yes of course, I remember that”. However, I wonder if people not familiar with the subject were able to retain any knowledge (months later). I found that Neil was rushing over concepts that require much more in-depth explanation and context, but I guess that’s where the title of the book comes in.
A Universe from Nothing, by Lawrence Krauss
In this book, Lawrence Krauss explains—very thoroughly and as far as language (without mathematics) allows him to—the counterintuitive concept that “emptiness is not empty”. It turns out empty space is teeming with particles which pop in-and-out of existence borrowing energy from the future. It sounds bizarre but that is what physicists over the last fifty years have found evidence of. Furthermore, this “empty space that is not empty” has a direct correlation to why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe. Lawrence goes even further and manages to give you a headache when you find out that an entire universe can spring out of empty space (including ours!). Hence, A Universe From Nothing.
Measure what matters, by John Doerr
This is a recent book. I normally don't read recent books because I like to focus my energy on those which have made it through the filters of time. The reason why I picked this book up is because the company I work for in Boston uses the team-management system talked about in the book. The system is based on “Objectives and Key Results” (or OKRs). It was born in Intel, and got sharpened at Google, Intuit, the Gates Foundation, and several other companies which owe their success to it. OKRs encourage employees to establish their own objectives (Os) and come up with key results (KRs) which would lead to the accomplishment of such objective. However, the most important aspect of it is that everyone’s OKRs are visible to the entire company. This transparency causes people to really think about what they want to do, and it also plants seeds of collaboration, feedback, encouragement, and personal growth throughout the entire company. In a way, I was already using OKRs for my own life before reading this, but the book gave it a name, and allowed me to share them with my team. So far, I love working with it!
Home Coffee Roasting, Romance and Revival, by Kenneth Davids
I recently decided to buy raw coffee to roast at home. There is a ton of information online on how to do this easily and cheaply, but as usual, I prefer books. This one has a great background on the history of home-roasting—before the technological advances of the 20th century—and it shows that convenience is the reason why we sacrifice flavor, complexity, aroma, and passion in our daily cup of coffee. The industrialization of coffee seems to have erased our collective memory on how incredibly satisfying a cup of home-roasted and properly-brewed coffee can be. However, this amnesia seems to be receding as more craft coffee stores and coffee enthusiasts are helping us to revive this wonderful fruit.
There were a few more books, but let’s move on…
My current job
Alright, now let’s talk about the real reason why I haven’t posted lately.
It was September of 2018, and I was reading Guns of August for the second time. My book copy was highlighted all over, filled with post-it notes, and had picture-printouts of around seventy characters in the story2. I also had a google document filled with dates (and times!) of the key events of August 1914. I was ready to go to town and start writing my post. But then, I went to a scientific conference in Seattle (a work-related trip) and I got introduced to the CSO3 and the COO4 of Commonwealth Fusion Systems—or CFS. This is a startup company spun out of MIT which has the very ambitious goal of producing positive fusion energy in the next three years.
For those of you unfamiliar with the subject, fusion is a source of energy that humans have been aware of for over sixty years. It is practically limitless, and has a very small impact on the environment. Furthermore, it is the only energy source that could single-handedly replace all fossil fuels without the help of any other renewables. It could literally save the world! The problem is that nobody has been able to make a power plant out of it… yet. That’s where CFS comes in.
As I talked to them, they told me they were in need of new people who knew about superconducting magnets (that is what my PhD studies and my postdoc were about), but most importantly, they were looking for people who were ready to revolutionize the world’s energy supply in the next ten years. So they encouraged me to apply for a job.
The whole idea at the moment seemed far from reach. I mean, these are MIT graduates and professors—the best of the best! Not only that, my specialty is in particle accelerator magnets made of LTS5, not fusion magnets made of HTS6. Besides, I was very comfortable where I was in Berkeley, so our conversation ended with a very non-committing “yeah sure, I’ll apply...” followed (in my head) by a bunch of “buts”.
That night, I laid on my hotel bed asking myself over and over: “What if they succeed?”, “Should I apply?”. “If I apply, will I be able to keep up?”, “Would I want to move to Boston’s extreme seasons and leave Berkeley’s year-round perfect weather?”, “What would my current employer say?”, “What would my wife say?”.
Deep down, knowing the way in which I go about my life, I knew that I was going to make it happen. But “making it happen” meant a complete change of life and career! At that point, a sinking feeling in my stomach developed—and it didn’t go away for a few weeks.
The sinking feeling was not one of fear. The reason why I felt it was because I knew I was not ready. The project I was involved in at Berkeley wasn’t even halfway done. Plus, I knew very little about fusion. I needed a plan. So I envisioned a rigorous schedule to spend the following eight months reading as much about plasma physics and fusion energy as I could (as well as about HTS), while preparing to leave Berkeley with the least amount of hindrance to the project. This meant, two hours of reading per day, and about the same amount of time on documentation, training videos, process optimization, and anything I could leave behind to allow for an easy transition to whomever would take my place at Berkeley.
And THAT is the main reason why I have not posted anything on my blog since Merchants of Doubt. I had to put Guns of August aside to devour books and scientific articles on fusion energy, and after those eight months I became quite familiar with the subject. By February 2019 I was ready to apply, and by June, I was already in Boston with a title of “Magnet Systems Engineer” at CFS.
I could not be happier! Working at a startup company is an absolute thrill. Especially one like CFS where there is so much talent—and which could have such an enormous impact on the world. On top of this, Boston is an amazing city. My wife and I are loving it! We got a new family member (Peanut) on the way from Berkeley, and got an apartment in quiet part of Cambridge with a big recreational park behind it.
As I said at the beginning, I am incredibly grateful for all this good fortune that has come my way, and I could not have done it without the support of those around me. I’m not sure what the future holds (other than hard work), but it is a great feeling to wake up every day and be excited to learn things and build stuff! Ultimately, the thing that keeps me moving the most is the company’s mission: “unlimited energy for everyone… forever!”
The conclusion of my blog
Let me remind you of the three main goals I set for myself when started my blog:
What I have found through this blog is that reading with the goal of writing makes a humongous difference on what is learned. I can’t stress this enough! My ability to remember specific details and impactful statistics has improved significantly since I started doing this. Plus, my vocabulary and communication skills have improved tenfold, and as a result, I’ve also become a much better storyteller. Additionally, thanks to writing about all these subjects, my brain has become much quicker at coming up with effective sentences when discussion arises in social events7.
Reading and writing this much has not only helped my skills; it has also significantly changed my life. For instance, having taken Merchants of Doubt so seriously led me to take the radical decision of selling my old car and buying a bicycle instead. It also reinforced my goal of buying an electric car, and I’ve been phasing off my meat consumption since. Then, reading and writing about George Washington and the American Revolution made me a better citizen—much more aware of the fragility of democracy. Finally, reading and writing about Cosmos has left me absolutely starstruck with the beauty of the universe—it has given me a Cosmic perspective with which I live every day.
These are important and tangible changes!
I could go on for hours about the tremendous impact books can have on our lives—if one is willing to take the time to read AND understand them. This kind of life-changing impact can not be obtained through documentaries, podcasts, internet articles, newspapers, nor the education system for that matter! (unfortunately)
We need to read more books and write more!
I consider my blog an amazing success. Not in terms of readers, but because it taught me how to be a better person all-around. It succeeded in sharpening my research skills, my memory, my ability to communicate complex ideas, and it succeeded in expanding my knowledge to areas that I would have never reached-out for had I lived a life without an obsession for books. I don’t know if Goals, 2, 3, and 4 were as successful, but I did get some very heartwarming messages from the few people that had the patience to read (or listen to) my massive book summary posts. Thank you!
So I guess this is the end. Given my new mission of fusion power (and the urgency of climate change) I don’t think I will have the time to write these long posts anymore. But I’m not too worried about it, I will still read about random stuff, and there is plenty of research/writing to be done at my new workplace.
Maybe someday I’ll pick up a book worthy of writing about again, but until then, good bye.
Take it easy folks...8