Category Archives: science life

EUV lithography makes headlines

EUV lithography is now part of everything – including the chips in your iPhone 12 and beyond. I don’t know if it’s because of the chip shortage, the $50B investment of the US government in semiconductor manufacturing, or the realization that having a nearly monopolistic market with its biggest player in Taiwan, at the mercy of an invasion, but there’s a lot of press on EUV lithography right now (I’ve been talking about my work on the topic at Berkeley Lab here: SHARP and MET5, and shared some thoughts on Moore’s law here.)

Me at the inaugural Berkeley Lab Slam (2016), talking about EUV lithography

Here’s a few pieces:

In this story, ASML is the quiet powerhouse – they have a de facto monopoly (their stock rose 10x over the last 5 years) and they keep expanding (ASML opens new state-of-the-art R&D facility in Silicon Valley.) There’s been some hardball played here, with the US pressuring the European company not to sell their technology with China (Reuters), as if it made any sense.

Besides, I am stoked to see my former colleagues from the Center for X-Ray Optics receive recognition for their work!

I hope we’ll get to develop new techniques with x-rays using diffraction-limited beams to further the advances in semiconductors and microchips – skyrmions, superconductivity, memristors, and so many other cool things!

power spectral density of an EUV coherent beam reflected on a naturally rough surface going through an objective zoneplate with a topological charge of 1

Plans for the roaring 20’s

I was recently featured twice by Berkeley Lab, first about my work on ALS-U:
Berkeley Lab The Next 90 – Accelerators: Conversation with Antoine Wojdyla.

It was a nice occasion to pay tribute to my grandpa and my grandmother, who passed away last month, and give some representation to the people from the Caribbean. And also explain what I do, and what I’m dreaming up.

Incidentally, I had to clear out my grandparents house, and set foot in his shop, where he was cutting glass and carving wood. In a way, that’s what I am doing right now, studying mirrors and carving out matter, albeit with tighter tolerances.

My grandpa’s shop stockroom (August 2021)

I also had an occasion to share with my colleague Alisa our vision for the Global ERG, which is an association at Berkeley Lab whose goal is to help out international colleagues – many of those who joined lately barely had a chance to meet anyone.
Berkeley Lab The Next 90 – Global ERG: Conversation with Antoine Wojdyla and Alisa Bettale

Fifteen minutes

In times of pandemic, there were no coffee room to distract yourself, exchange ideas with other colleagues or just chat about the state of the world. In a certain sense, Twitter has been the equivalent of a coffee room, and I’ve probably spent more time than I should have on there, but I’ve also learned quite a lot about science – not the natural world in itself, but how it works as an enterprise, some of its limitations (e.g. publishing), some of its problem (e.g., mental health issue, impostor syndrome; systemic discrimination) and also participate to the conversation on how to improve things.

The way you use Twitter is personal; some spend a lot of time but stay in the shadow, some like to share everything they see as they would do on Instagram. For me, I use it as a bookmark for tiny ideas (I often use the Twitter advanced search to find a resource I know I shared at some point), and I try to post something every once in a while, to tell the others I’m here. And more and more I use it to boost some messages (propping up students and announcements), which I can do now that I do have some followers with large reach (@Cal, @UCBerkeley, @BerkeleyLab or @SPIEtweets or influential people.)

Lots of various interests converge in my following

Sometimes I post a tweet that blows up, and I wander in the Twitter Analytics to look at the aftermath. There, you realize that even with a tiny following, you can reach a lot of people (At the present moment I have 450 followers, and 120,000 impressions.)

This was a month with a particularly high number of tweet impressions

The good thing about Twitter is that there’s no filter: anyone can say anything they want, and sometimes you happen to produce something interesting, something that others needed without knowing it was there (that’s the essence of virality.)

This one I showed to my mon

The flip side of course is that you have to be mindful of what you say – what people call cancel culture is often the absence of an editor, or simply time to fine tune their message, to tell them they’re going too far. In the extreme, you get incendiary content that get amplified in weird ways by algorithms that are extremely good at hacking your dopamine pathways (here’s an excellent thread on that topic)

On Twitter, you also get to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise – people that are not in your existing network, but are expert and willing to help (you also realize that a lot of people you admire are on Twitter – or is it just the opposite?)

Something I didn’t expect is that I would meet in real life people I got to know from Twitter, and some who are now lifelong friends. People with who you share affinity with and a common sense of purpose.

I do like Twitter, and even though it has some similarities with drugs (I used to smoke cigarettes, and the urge to check Twitter whenever you’re idle is strangely similar), it is much better than most other social media. Somehow, they managed not to grow it too big, and it is still a very civil space from where I learn a lot.

Zoom and defocus

I found working during a pandemic particularly hard. While there are some people who seem perfectly fine with working remotely, it seems that the unease might have to do both with the kind of person you are (introvert/extrovert), but most fundamentally with the nature of your work.

When you work in a team, say in scientific engineering, it seems the biggest challenge with online meetings is the lack of multi-channel conversation and feedback, because it allows to more precisely frame the scope of the task:

Asking the right questions is more important than answering them
– Cantor

… to which Benoit Mandelbrot replied “Asking the right questions is as important as answering them.” This is important, because in absence of a well defined scope, it may take much longer to answer a question (a design, a calculation) than you may think, because the task is ill-posed and you can’t reorient the scope (e.g. refine, modify assumptions) to find a solution in due time.

The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.
– Bertrand Russell

I’ve learned from a friend that while Amazon initially said at the start of the pandemic that they would be considering more working from options, they now want to bring everyone to office. It is my impression (at least my experience!) that the initial gains in productivity that made them seriously considering WFH might have come from some initial momentum, where tasks were well-delineated, but eventually faded away.

It is possible that zoom fatigue is also at play, or simply the effect of isolation on people, but I believe that the general exhaustion may also come from a general lack of direction.

edit June 11, 2021: here’s a interesting article from Gibbs at a. at UChicago:
Work from Home & Productivity: Evidence from Personnel & Analytics Data on IT Professionals

Those who did perceive declines in productivity also experienced lower levels of well-being from WFH. Bellmann and Hubler (2020) find that working remotely has no long-run effect on work-life balance, and that a switch to WFH increases job satisfaction only temporarily. Work-life balance mayalso be affected by decreased commuting time. Barrero et al. (2020) estimate that during the height of the pandemic, WFH reduced total commuting time among US workers by more than 60 million hours per work day.


The upgrade of the Advanced Light Source (ALS-U), the project I’m working on, has received CD-2 approval from the US Department of Energy, meaning that we are gearing up towards final design and will soon start ordering tons of magnets and mirrors, and transform our beloved light source into a laser-like source of x-rays, to enable the next generation in batteries, solar cells, computers and medicines (among many other things:)

Advanced Light Source Upgrade Project Achieves Major Milestone

Here’s a few recent highlights from the research enabled by the little synchrotron that could:

Jennifer Doudna, chair of the Advanced Light Source Users’ Executive Committee (around 2001)

A last bit of research by my colleague Alex Frañó (and friend from the ALS Users’ Executive Committee) gets my neurons randomly firing up at night: Rethinking the fundamental way electrons interact in superconducting quantum materials. It progressively appear that skyrmions and superconductivity may be intimately related: A New Twist Reveals Superconductivity’s Secrets (Quanta magazine.) If this is true, we’re on the verge of a major shift: we could potentially engineer interfaces to create room temperature superconductivity. That would be a revolution: we could transfer power from a place to another with no loss (electrical line losses are about 50%) and we could democratize magnetic levitation for transportation.


I made it – I finally reached a dream, a promise I made to my mom at the dawn of my life, thirty years ago:

I have become a savant!

We’re going through difficult times, but this news obviously bring some light into this darkness.

Berkeley women supercharching the US government

There’s been quite a shift in the US government, and I am thrilled to see that Berkeley, my town of adoption, is very well represented in the new administration. It shouldn’t be a surprise given a premier public university is obviously a great pool of talent, but there is something about the place and its people that is very special and I cannot pinpoint. Among the Berkeley representatives in the new government:

  • Kamala Harris, the Vice-President, who grew up in Berkeley and whose mother worked at Berkeley Lab
  • Jennifer Granholm, the Secretary of Energy, who is professor at Berkeley and technically a colleague from Berkeley Lab
  • Janet Yellen, the Secretary of Treasury and a former Berkeley professor.

It is my experience that the US administration can be extremely competent under a good leadership, a point made by Michael Lewis (another Berkeley resident) in his book The Fifth Risk, where he was trying to explain how we might survive a deficient head of government (it seems he’s been right on that one, though we lost half a million people to a pandemic that could probably have been contained much better.

Building on 4th Street, Berkeley

In terms of science, the outlook is pretty good, with people. It also happens that Frances Arnold, Nobel prize laureate and Berkeley alumni, will be part of the government, will help Eric Lander whose role at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy has been elevated to cabinet role. There’s also the Endless Frontier bill that would double the funding of science in the US and likely to pass thanks to bipartisan support.

It’s quite a home run year for Berkeley women, with Jennifer Doudna who was awarded a Nobel prize for her discovery of CRISPR/Cas9.


Michael Lewis: ‘Trump is like a psycho dad to America’ – The Guardian


My friend Sana has started a wonderful literary project called “A known space.”

Here’s the first issue: A known space: Vol. 1: Nucleus (my personal contribution: The Sound of the waves)

credit: Szymon Kobusiński – TRANSSUBSTANTIATIO

Wade on!

The value of coffee in research

The past nine months have been spent working from home, and it has now become clear that what I miss the most is the casual interactions with colleagues in the coffee room.

It is a place where ideas sparks, and where information flows from one scientist to the other. The importance of this liminal space should not be understated. It provides a safe space where ideas can be freely challenged and developed, owing to the generally low number of participants, the low stakes and the general mood.

Over the years, I’ve developed several coffee clubs in my buildings (I’ve changed buildings three times), adding an espresso machine wherever I could (often on my own funds, though coffee beans where purchased collectively.)

Elementary Table of Coffee (Berkeley Lab building 2 coffee room, 2013-2016) (@awojdyla, Feb 4 2018)

The importance of the mood component became apparent as we switched to online meetings and we started to lack this kind of space (thankfully my colleague Diane B. organized regular coffee zooms!), though nothing replaces the in-person interaction, with a white board where people can share their thoughts.

Saul Perlmutter casting a definitive vote on the planet-ness of Pluto in our coffee room (Berkeley Lab building 2)

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The scientist as public intellectual

Lately, I’ve been talking with a few early career scientists among my friends, trying to convince them to set up a website, and perhaps have some kind of open social media presence (e.g. Twitter.)

It’s not only about dressing things up, even if you may feel like it is

The primary reason is that since they’re going to have jobs where they will be judged on their past accomplishment, their names will necessarily be googled, and random results will appear; perhaps linkedin, google scholar, researchgate or a github account will show up on the first result page (try googling your name in private mode!) Having a website would allow to take control of the information about you, and highlight what you think is relevant.

The second reason, and perhaps the most important, is that as scientists we are public intellectual. We are paid to produce research and communicate around it. You are entitled to use your expertise on topics in your field and make it clear, through a webpage or a blog, and maybe share tools and resources you found useful. The scientific publication ecosystem is pretty bad, far from open access, and articles themselves are so terse they cannot be understood by anyone outside your field. You can use your website to make your research publicly available (it’s legal, you still own the rights, see here) and also give some context to it, by surrounding it with other relevant pieces or break it down to make it digestible.

Don’t be afraid of the light

However, the typical reaction of my fellow researcher is that “it’s not my style”, “I don’t want to self-promote.” I tend to think it’s oftentimes and extension of the impostor syndrome (great piece by my friend Maria Żurek)

It was about one year ago when I received an email: “Dear Dr. Żurek, We are happy to offer you a postdoctoral position at Berkeley Lab”. And what was my first reaction? “They probably think I’m nice, so they didn’t realize I’m inadequate”. Yes, this was my first thought, even if I had objectively good research experience, even if I was very well prepared for the application, even if I was fully aware that what I had been dealing with was the monster called impostor syndrome.

Since you spend your time doubting about the depth of your knowledge, you can never find the right time to talk about it.

But in truth I believe a big part of it is laziness – or just knowing where to start: it’s not easy to set up a website, though there are helpful guides for those who are interested (e.g. Dan Quintana.)

The visibility of scientists

Another important aspect of the scientist as a public individual is to lead by example. Academia is rapidly evolving, and we need to be visible to make everyone welcome. While historically it’s been pretty white, pretty male and pretty old, with a heavy dose of reproduction among elites, it is important to share your own story, as younger scientists may not know how academia works, because their parents or nobody around them were not academics themselves. (alternatively, writing wikipedia pages for others is a good occasion to document such stories, and for you to learn from other people trajectory and pass it on.)

It also became increasingly important that the scientist engages the public sphere. Not only to counter false messages, but also because influential (read: established) scientist also happen to be out of touch.

Twitter presence is also good in your pursuit — it’s a good hook if you don’t have the time for a full blog/website and you’re looking for interaction. Here’s a piece on how to get started: Threads. It’s also important to understand the Science Twitter ecosystem; here’s a few account I enjoy which to me represent various aspects of the question

Science communication

Let me insist here once again that papers aren’t written to be read, but to be evaluated (eventually, if you land Nature, you’ve scored an A+) and actually very few people will do the promotion of your research (there’s no money to make out of it.) Write a paper is like getting a great, it’s your role to make it accessible. Plus doing this effort at the start will compound — later on you can more easily share research and *its context* with others.

It is good to have some experience with writing non-scientific articles: it pushes you to conduct interviews to substantiate your claims. Asking colleagues is sometimes… anathema in science, for fear of competition. But this is rarely the true excuse: people are often just too lazy to reach out. Teach yourself and your colleagues to do it!

In “Between the World and Me”, Ta-Nehisi Coates characterize journalists as seekers, and scientists should also seek to be seekers, and not only through producing new results but also by synthesizing information which is already there or summarizing opinions on a given topic. And that’s an acquired skill you learn by doing, and may help you create fruitful collaborations: the most interesting results often come from serendipitous interactions, and that’s something to cultivate.


Politics is a very sensitive topic in science. People like to think science is neutral, because scientists are seeking some kind of grand objective truth, and that politics has nothing to do with it. In truth, they are afraid (and reasonably so) to get their funding cut. Actually, scientists love to talk about politics, but it barely transpires outside the coffee room.

The current period, where the current pandemic of covid-19, and the looming threat of climate change has never made clearer that scientists are under assault and need to speak up. You are entitled to your opinion, and as long as you don’t speak in the name of your institution (and make it clear), things should be fine.

Just look at the most prominent scientist of the current era, Anthony Fauci. He doesn’t hesitate to reach out, and he’s perfectly comfortable with that:

A very public intellectual

If he can do it at age 80, why couldn’t you?