A Message from Chuck Black

insights from the CFN Director

Chuck Black enlarge

Chuck Black

Earlier this fall, the CFN held its annual staff retreat—an event that provides an important time to come together and think about what we would like the CFN to be. It is one of my favorite days—we share many ideas, discuss our issues and how we can improve, and consider our future. 

One of the topics we talked about this year is, in some ways, the most important question of all: How important is the work that the CFN does? Are we doing significant things?

I was motivated to discuss this topic at our retreat because a few days beforehand Oleg Gang had shared the transcript of a 1986 presentation given by the American mathematician Richard Hamming. I encourage everyone to read it. Hamming was a highly accomplished scientist, having started his career at Los Alamos, where he programmed the IBM calculating machines in support of physicists working on the Manhattan Project. After the war ended, Hamming joined Bell Laboratories and made many seminal contributions to the mathematics of computing.

After his retirement, Hamming returned to Bell Labs and presented this talk, titled “You and Your Research.” Describing his days at Los Alamos during World War II, he recalled, “…I was brought in to run the computing machines which other people had got going, so those scientists and physicists could get back to business…I saw Feynman up close. I saw Fermi and Teller. I saw Oppenheimer. I saw Hans Bethe…I saw quite a few very capable people. I became very interested in the difference between those who do and those who might have done.” 

Hamming continued, “Now, why is this talk important? I think it is important because, as far as I know, each of you has only one life to live…Why shouldn't you do significant things in this one life?

At our retreat, we spent time discussing this very question. As CFN staff members, we consider our mission to be advancing society by understanding and improving materials. Among the DOE User Facilities, the CFN and the other four Nanoscale Science Research Centers are unique in providing facilities to make new materials. (Of course, we are experts at characterizing them, too.) And we aspire to participate in delivering the nanomaterial discoveries that will power the 21st century. At our retreat, we talked about our aspiration. Are we doing what we say we would like to do? Are we doing significant things? 

Let me give some examples of why I think we are.

This year, the CFN staff of 40 people supported the research of 571 users from around the world—the most ever for our facility in a single year and an accomplishment we are proud of. Together, each CFN staff member helped more than 14 other scientists, on average, to accomplish their research goals. That is a tremendous multiplier, and it shows the commitment and dedication of the CFN staff to our user facility mission.

Moreover, so far in 2017, there have been more than 310 peer-reviewed scientific publications acknowledging the use of CFN facilities—already the highest number in a single year (even though the year is not over yet!). We were thrilled to realize that this year the CFN is on track to contribute to the world’s scientific output at a rate of one publication every single day. It is an amazing level of impact for a staff of 40 people. It demonstrates our technical expertise. But most of all, it shows clearly the talents, skills, and creativity of our users.

Finally, it is deeply satisfying for our staff to be members of an organization that is so broadly advancing the field of nanoscience. Here are just a few examples of the wide variety of research topics that CFN users studied in 2017:

Similarly, this year, CFN staff members also made exciting progress in many of our own chosen areas of nanoscience research:

  • Multi-exciton solar materials (i.e., ultra-high efficiency)
  • Nanomaterials for the capture of rare radiological gases
  • Real-time electron tomography
  • Efficient water-splitting photocatalysts
  • Self-assembled DNA scaffolds for protein crystallization
  • Cheap lasers from nanoparticles
  • Autonomous experimental science         

Richard Hamming concluded his 1986 talk “You and Your Research” by asserting the following: “…I claim that some of the reasons why so many people who have greatness within their grasp do not succeed are: they don't work on important problems, they don't become emotionally involved…and they keep giving themselves alibis why they don't.”

For me, and I think for many of the staff, the conversation at this year’s CFN retreat was at once gratifying, motivating, and humbling. The day’s discussions reminded me of a poem, written by the 20th century American poet Dylan Thomas. “Do not go gentle into that good night” is a meditation on the human spirit, and it reminds us that time is precious and we must seize our opportunities. The two poem verses I think most about are

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

The CFN is a special place—it provides our users and staff, working together, with the opportunity to do significant things to advance society by improving materials. We will not waste our chance.

—Chuck Black
CFN Director

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