Wheatstone Innovation Lab - Wlab

How do you teach creativity to the next generation of scientists?

I have always had the feeling we can do better than simple frontal teaching and book reading. In particular for experimental science the conventional laboratory does not convey the excitement and frustration of a real experiment nor its open-ended nature.

With this in mind Matthew Howard  from Robotics and I have started the The Wheatstone Innovation Laboratory (Wlab), as a scientific maker space for our students.

Students at work in Wlab

Students at work in Wlab

Wlab is an interdisciplinary laboratory with a novel bottom-up approach to science experimentation and innovation. It is named after Sir Charles Wheatstone, a scientist and inventor, who was constantly making new devices and instruments. By embedding artistic makers with skills in traditional crafts we recapture that creative and inventive spirit, giving our students the confidence to experiment and learn by making, as well as developing new skills in areas (such as enamelling, embroidery, or glass making) that would otherwise be inaccessible to them in the formal teaching of traditional science and engineering disciplines.

Wlab's first year has been a success, and it has stimulated our students to be inquisitive, to observe and ask scientific and artistic questions during the making process, not separately, as in the more academic way. Moreover, working side by side with makers, the students soon realised they have a common approach to research and a shared fascination with light, material and electronics. In this way they started to develop an understanding about the relevance of whatever they do within a much broader context. 

Here below two of our first projects, an ultraprecise clock with nanosecond resolution and Kinba the robot receptionist, which we have also exhibited at the V&A, during the Digital Design Weekend in September 2016.

The ultra precise clock

The ultra precise clock

Kinba the robot receptionist

Kinba the robot receptionist

A glass-maker in our lab: Parallel Practice

Shelley James, a brilliant glass maker (shelleyjames.com) has been resident in our lab last year, within the Parallel Practice programme of the Crafts Council and the Cultural Institute in King's. Together we investigating making and problem-solving through glass techniques and experimentation to broaden learning and confidence.

This was an unusual project for me, and I was wondering how we would have combined our "practices" as they say in the craft world, mixing physics and the art of glass making. After our first discussions we realised we had a common language of light and matter, and have dived into fascinating speculations on light, crystals, colours, lasers.

In her words: This was an intense and wonderful experience and has sown the seeds for a rich network of relationships and ideas that I look forward to cultivating in the months and years to come. It’s also been the catalyst for me to develop a new technique for casting in glass - and to begin my first experiments in colour since my MA thesis, over 25 years ago!

If you want to know more just follow this link for a short film by Mike Paterson about the Parallel Practice experience https://vimeo.com/183640009


A physicist at the Biennale di Venezia

Last week I had the chance to discuss colours from a nanophotonics point of view, at a meeting about Fundamentals of Space: Colour and Line organised at the Biennale of Architecture, and invited by the energetic Ivana Wingham.

I am always fascinated by cross-contamination like these, and despite the large differences in method and language (my first live performance of dance and art during the talks) nothing brings more new ideas than talking to the other side of the brain, to a different audience. Very often we risk of forgetting the world outside the lab, as we put so much efforts in solving the scientific puzzles, and events like these bring me back to real life.

I really enjoyed learning about colour in architecture, to form space, to affect our brain. I also discovered interferential painting done by coated mica crystals, much more interesting than titanium dioxide powders! Still nothing from Mie resonators or plasmonic particles though…

Will this start a new architectural-artistic-scientific project? Will keep you posted.

Fundamentals of Space: Colour and Line


The freelance postdoc experiment

We are all well aware of how difficult is to get a permanent position in academia. The employers are very cautious as the tenured position comes with a very strong contractual stability and in some country with immortality (as civil service status). The postdocs work longer and longer hours to face the increasing competition. Academia needs more and more advanced skills that can only be acquired with years of experience but it refrains from rewarding it with a permanent job. An interesting alternative is that of the academic freelancer as proposed by Katie Rose Guest Pryal here, as a mean to alleviate the intense and extenuating life of a postdoc or not-tenured academic.

We have already started such an experiment, as I have hired a recently graduate and unemployed colleague to perform some theoretical calculations that we need for our experiments. The difference with respect to a normal collaboration is that this time I am paying him by the hour and he is performing the work choosing his time and without being based in London, just coming for a meetings to discuss the results. All the other discussions are done by Skype, email and probably soon in Slack.

In this way we can reward skills and actual hours of work, and potentially we can resolve personal issues such as family relocation etc… Would this work also for experimental work? It is hard to tell, but I could imagine having a setup in my house and performing experiments on demand as a freelancer does. Shared facilities similar to maker and hacker space could also make lab space and equipment more accessible.

Sooner or later we will have to invent a new way to develop science, a research 2.0, and it may start by embracing new concept such as remote and freelance work.

Tuning random lasing in photonic glasses

We have just published a new theoretical model including frequency interaction and mode competition in random lasing which allows to predict resonance-driven tuning of random lasing.   As it builds on solid previous models, we believe that it could be of practical use to predict the behavior of your random lasing system. If you are interested in the code just contact us.

Tuning random lasing in photonic glasses, Michele Gaio, Matilda Peruzzo and Riccardo Sapienza, Optics Letters 2015.

Tuning random lasing in photonic glasses

We present a detailed numerical investigation of the tunability of a diffusive random laser when Mie resonances are excited. We solve a multimode diffusion model and calculate multiple light scattering in presence of optical gain which includes dispersion in both scattering and gain, without any assumptions about the β parameter. This allows us to investigate a realistic photonic glass made of latex spheres and rhodamine and to quantify both the lasing wavelength tunability range and the lasing threshold. Beyond what is expected by diffusive monochromatic models, the highest threshold is found when the competition between the lasing modes is strongest and not when the lasing wavelength is furthest from the maximum of the gain curve.

PDF available here: Tuning random lasing in photonic glasses

A new lab to encourage creativity

Creativity is often neglected in academic curricula, mainly because nobody really knows how to teach it. I believe in the “messy play” approach.

I often try to retrace the steps that led to conceiving our scientific experiments and I usually reach the conclusion that it happened when thinking about something else, during periods of intellectual stimulation, often triggered by busy research activity.
As an experimentalist I believe that you need to be making and doing, fiddle in the lab, ask yourself simple questions and link concepts together before you can have that great idea. Creativity escapes traditional frontal teaching (and teacher-centred teaching), instead it requires dirty hands and individual (student-centred) effort.

With this idea in mind Matthew Howard and I have founded the Wheatstone Innovation Lab, a space for students to experiment, research unsupervised and train their creativity. Named after Charles Wheatstone, the legendary scientist working in King’s College London (in the same lab!) it is designed to promote disruptive thinking. Think about it as the garage where Steve Job and Steve Wozniak invented the first Mac or the shed where Marie Curie discovered radioactivity.

We have been fortunate to be supported by the faculty of natural and mathematical sciences of King’s College London and in particular by Mike and Rosie who strongly believed in this idea, and now we are preparing the first activities: makehatons, researchatons, hackatons!

If you are in King’s check it out here!