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‘I Aspire to Make a Contribution Comparable to Prometheus' Gift to Humanity'

Egor Sedov

Earned a bachelor's degree in information science and computational technology and a master's degree in electronics and nanoelectronics, both from HSE University. Research Assistant at the Quantum Nanoelectronics Laboratory and Associate Professor at the MIEM HSE School of Electronic Engineering. He is also a Junior Research Fellow at the Ginzburg Centre for High-Temperature Superconductivity and Quantum Materials of Lebedev Institute of Physics, Russian Academy of Sciences.

Egor Sedov initially planned to pursue a career in programming but instead became captivated by experimental physics. In this interview with the HSE Young Scientists project, he spoke about the quantum effect and the quantum standard, a scientist's letter from the future, and the magnetic levitation of a frog.

How I started in science

I enrolled in the Tikhonov Moscow Institute of Electronics and Mathematics, and six months later, it merged with HSE University. Therefore, I was one of the first (the Institute had offered only specialist courses before) and the last bachelor's students at MIEM. I was trained as a programmer, and my thesis centred around physics and programming—the assignment involved computing the temperature at different points on a board located in outer space. I had no problems with programming but struggled to comprehend physics. Therefore, I chose to pursue a master's in applied physics instead of programming, since my goal was to gain a deeper understanding of physics. At that time, the field of study in quantum cryptography and quantum computing was beginning to open up, and I chose to focus on this.

During the two years of my master's, I experienced maximum productivity. I studied really hard and enjoyed it enormously. I read numerous physics books and adopted a systematic approach to selecting both an academic supervisor and the topic. I was not particularly interested in studying the theoretical side. Perhaps a higher level of intelligence is required for that, and I preferred hands-on work. Eventually, Konstantin Arutyunov became my supervisor. He runs a laboratory at HSE University and also works at the RAS Institute for Physical Problems (IFP).

The subject of my research

I research various small structures and how their physical properties change depending on size. During my master's studies, I investigated bismuth nanostructures. My supervisor conducted an experiment together with another student, who was from Finland, where they focused on measurements, while I was responsible for the theoretical aspect. During the experiment, resistance in bismuth wires did not change uniformly; instead, it sharply increased at specific sizes, followed by a decrease, another sharp increase, and eventually, below a certain size, bismuth transitioned from a semi-metal to an insulator, i.e. it stopped conducting current.

There is ostensibly a logical explanation: as the material reduced in size, electrons could no longer pass through. However, that's not how it works. In other materials, like gold, the cut-off point is much lower, typically around 0.3 nanometres. Bismuth is suitable for experiments because its characteristics make the effect clearly visible.

During my doctoral programme, I researched this quantum effect in aluminium. It is a more classical material, where quantum effects become apparent at very small scales, precisely what we aimed to observe. It has long been established that when a critical temperature is reached, aluminium exhibits superconductivity, leading to a sharp drop in its resistance. Numerous researchers have explored this topic, yet no one so far has determined why the critical temperature is higher when the thickness of the aluminium film decreases.

Photo: HSE University

We hypothesized that the quantum effect we observed in bismuth influenced the critical temperature in aluminium as well, with the changes similarly occurring in a sawtooth pattern. We had expected to see a result aligned with this theory, but we were not successful. Most likely, this was because we were unable to produce specimens of sufficient quality having the required characteristics. However, our specimens were still of the best possible quality, and the critical temperature decreased significantly compared to what had been observed earlier. That was the result of our study.

Currently, my supervisor and I are involved in developing a device capable of measuring a single electron. There are metre and kilogram standards, and we aim to create an ampere standard, a sort of quantum standard.

Where I work

Neither MIEM, nor HSE University more broadly, have physics laboratories; therefore, I have to work where such facilities are available. The Institute for Physics Problems (IFP), where my supervisor worked, was reluctant to hire early-career specialists, so I applied for a job at the RAS Institute of Physics (FIAN).

At FIAN, they produce various materials and investigate their properties. Here, they give me a crystal, from which I create a thin slice. Contacts are then attached, and a thin bridge cut into the slice, so that various properties may be measured within this thin bridge.

I am free to conduct my own research here without any problems, whereas in the West, I would have had to apply for a separate grant.

I also teach physics, handling laboratory work for the first year and seminars for the second year at MIEM. Additionally, I conduct lessons for grades 10-11 at HSE Lyceum.

My dissertation

My dissertation is complete, but I have not defended it yet. Its title is 'Investigating the Critical Temperature in Thin Aluminium Films.' Normally, one defends their doctoral dissertation where they have studied. However, MIEM has a Dissertation Committee for technology and engineering, whereas I needed one for physics and mathematics. HSE University has a Dissertation Committee for physics, but it does not suit my profile either. I tried to find a suitable dissertation committee at other institutions but was unsuccessful. Therefore, I returned to MIEM, and I am currently in the process of defending my dissertation. I will have a degree in technology and engineering, even though my dissertation is in solid-state physics.

Photo: HSE University

What I am proud of

I take pride in having published a paper in npj Quantum Materials, a publication affiliated with Nature, about our study of bismuth nanostructures. When the paper was published, MIEM conducted an interview with me. My academic supervisor also takes pride in this work. The paper is authored by three persons, with my name listed first.

My dream

It's typically not advisable to share one's dreams, because doing so might prevent them from coming true. But okay, let me say it out loud: I aspire to make a contribution comparable to Prometheus' gift to humanity. I have no idea what form this may take; I have not figured it out yet. I cannot claim to be an overly ambitious person. I simply enjoy engaging in science, so that is what I do. Every scientist wishes to contribute in some way to the greater good of humanity. I often hear from my students, 'What is the purpose of such and such?' I used to ask my academic supervisor the exact same question. While there might be some purpose, the primary motivator is our own interest.

Science for me is a method of learning about the world around and understanding some of its more fascinating aspects. How the Universe works, what processes underlie its functioning, and why an apple falls down and not up. Another aspect that attracts me is that people in the scientific community are generally lean and healthy, and many live to a very old age. Additionally, there is the opportunity to travel to conferences, often with expenses covered.

If I had not become a scientist, I would have become a programmer. I was trained as a programmer; it just so happened that I transitioned to experimental physics. I engage in programming when conducting measurements. Currently, I'm not involved in measurements, so I don't do programming either. However, if faced with such a task, it wouldn't be a problem for me to handle it.

Who practices good science in Russia

There is a company, Scontel, that manufactures single-photon detectors. What they do is applied science aimed at improving the performance of SPDs through various methods—rather than a merely theoretical pursuit, like attaching plasticine to a frog to observe how it will move. But I do not particularly fancy this research topic—probably because I associate photons with optics, a subject I did not enjoy at school.

Scientists I would like to meet

Michael Faraday. He is the king of experimental physics. As far as I understand, Faraday's experiments have made a significant contribution to modern science. The discovery of electromagnetic induction, one of his primary discoveries, revolutionised the world, giving rise to transformers and electrical devices.

I would also love to meet and converse with Archimedes. I recently came across a theory explaining why science did not progress more rapidly in Ancient Greece. According to this theory, in more recent times, the focus has been on enhancing the facilities for production, while in Ancient Greece, having slaves work for you meant there was less incentive to improve productivity.

I would also be interested in talking with someone from the future, since I cannot live forever, nor would I wish to. It could be fascinating to receive a letter from someone living five thousand years in the future, discussing the challenges science faces. I think I would understand what it is about, as there is always a method to describe even the most sophisticated concepts in a way that makes them at least approximately comprehensible. Sometimes I explain to school students why the Schrödinger equation is necessary, and as they leave the class, they often say, 'Yes, it is really clear now.'

Photo: HSE University

A typical day

On Mondays, I teach basic physics at HSE Lyceum to sociology, economics, and computer science students. On Tuesdays, I conduct second-year physics seminars at MIEM. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I work at FIAN. On Fridays, I inform my supervisors at one job that I will be working at my other job, and vice versa. However, in reality, I spend half the day preparing for classes and the other half taking some rest because on Saturdays, I conduct seminars with second-year students. And on Sundays, I prefer to engage in activities that do not require intellectual effort. Currently, this involves working on renovating our house in the countryside.

How I deal with burnout

A particularly challenging period for me occurred two years ago when I completed my doctoral programme and started working full time. During the doctoral programme, I was receiving a scholarship roughly equivalent to a teacher's salary, and practically all I was doing was scientific work, spending four days a week in the laboratory, along with some teaching.

Suddenly, I found myself juggling a full-time teaching position, a job at FIAN, and a job at IFP, since I was still completing my dissertation. I had no days off, and whenever I found any free time, I would take out my paper notebook and laptop to prepare for classes and seminars. In November, physics lab classes were added to my workload. I was constantly experiencing burnout. From April onward, I lacked the motivation to do anything at all. All I could think about was that in just three more months, I would go to the countryside and spend all my time lying down, doing nothing. This was also the first year that I felt the urge to devise a novel teaching technique, such as a new laboratory exercise or a creative game.

Photo: HSE University

My interests besides science

I paint miniature models for Warhammer 40,000, a popular board game. The miniatures are sold separately and require assembly and painting. Then a playing field must be constructed and the rules figured out before starting the game. I have translated the rules for one army but not yet for the other army. Along the same lines, I would like to create a diorama of some kind.

I also enjoy sports, but only in winter. I play hockey, and I started snow kiting last year. I took a couple of lessons in Strogino, where the lake freezes, making it suitable for snow kiting. A field near our country house can also be used for gliding when the terrain is clear and there is enough snow. An almost cosmic wind blows there: I raise my kite and instantly get pulled to the other end of the field. And then I must walk back knee-deep in snow.

I also enjoy snowboarding. A friend taught me how to snowboard when I was still a student at MIEM. We spent a couple of weeks snowboarding together, and then I went to Sochi for a vacation. It was in 2014, shortly after the Winter Paralympics. I immediately decided to climb to the top and to snowboard down. It went well, except that I fell a couple of times, of course. My first snowboard was a gift from my friend. I had saved up to buy the cheapest snowboard boots and bindings, and my parents bought me a helmet. It was a good helmet, and as I look at it now, I can see that it has dents all over.

When I returned from Sochi, my helmet smelled of pine trees. I don't know why, as I had never left the trails. Once, I decided to take a shortcut under the chairlift and received a round of applause from the passengers, shouting, 'That's a nice flip!'

What I have been reading lately

The Pedagogical Poem by Anton Makarenko. I enjoyed it. This book has aged well, because the essence of interpersonal relationships never changes. For example, the way I was raised, and I still believe it is the right way, is to always be honest. Therefore, I make sure to be honest, including with my students. If they ask me a question and I am not sure of the answer, I simply say, 'I don't know. Let's figure it out together.'

Some argue that this can harm teacher-student relations because the teacher should be an authority, and not knowing something undermines their authority in the eyes of the students. But this is not what I have observed; on the contrary, when you are honest with people, they treat you with more respect. Therefore, it seems to me that Makarenko's methods are still relevant.

Except, perhaps, his approach to maintaining discipline. While the principles are still the same, the approach has changed. Imagine if, as a teacher, I told your child, 'Just shut up and listen to me!' And if the child attempts to say something, I approach their desk, bang my fist on it, and yell, 'I am the one who is speaking here! You must not interrupt the teacher. I am God to you.' The child will complain to you, their parent. You will go to the school principal and say, 'What kind of crazy person teaches at your school? Please fire him.' And that will mark the end of my attempts to maintain discipline in class, as I will be fired. Therefore, we must act more gently. Exactly how is a good question, and some of the brightest minds in education are working on it.

For Makarenko, maintaining discipline was a priority. He was not excessively tough, even though his students were street children and young offenders. He worked to establish rapport with them and discourage theft. But the turning points were the moments when he demonstrated his power to them. Although he restrained himself, the youngsters could see in his eyes how far he could go. You can look at an offender in a way that makes him clearly see that his next step will be his last. Makarenko recalls two such episodes that he heavily regretted, although my personal opinion is that they were pivotal. It is unfortunate that this is how things work. After a million years of evolution, power remains the primary factor that matters to us.

Photo: HSE University

My discoveries as teacher

At HSE Lyceum, I came up with the idea of involving students in physics-themed games based on Broken Telephone, Jeopardy, The Hat Game, and Crocodile. For example, when playing Broken Telephone, I provide them with a verbal definition of a physics concept and ask to represent it as a drawing. They are not allowed to use any reference material while drawing.

Then the drawing is passed on to other students who must decipher what it represents. They are allowed to use their mobile phones. I instruct them, 'Your main task is to identify the key aspects that can be Google searched to decipher the riddle.' And then they go through the seven stages of acceptance, from 'this means...what?' to 'wow, that's cool!'

Advice for aspiring scientists

I always advise the first- and second-year students I teach to find an academic supervisor as soon as possible. Having one early on will make your life easier when you begin working in the laboratory. This will provide you with a background, and if grants are available, you might even receive some funding, which is always nice. This is my practical advice to them.

From a more global perspective, I would advise them to never give up and not get upset after a negative experience, because a negative result is still a result. When I teach students to do something, I notice that almost everyone gets disappointed after a failure. In reality, seven out of ten attempts end in failure. Yet some students even refuse to complete the assignment if it is not working out.

If you want to pursue science, you must not despair about anything at all. You will fail most of the time, but eventually, on your tenth attempt, you will succeed. I can refer to the example of Andre Geim, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of graphene. But before that, he had received the humorous Ig Nobel Prize for studying the magnetic levitation of a live frog.

My favourite place in Moscow

Gorky Park, where I spent so of my youth. We skated on the ice rink, rolled on skateboards, dated, and strolled around the park. We did not go there to skip classes, as the park was quite a distance from the university.

Today, the playgrounds for children there are superb. They have toy excavators, cranes, sprinklers, and an Archimedes' screw—as well as big slides that children can climb up, and huge swings. There is also the Russian Academy of Sciences’ observation deck nearby, with views over the MCC, the Moskva River, the Ministry of Defence, and Moscow-City. For some reason, few people know about this place, and there is never much of a crowd there.