How does it feels to be the best in the world at something?

One of the great things of being part of the Electrical Engineering department at Princeton University is to have Loren Pfeiffer in the 4th floor (video and website). Loren is a materials grower that uses molecular beam epitaxy to grow the best single crystal gallium arsenide (GaAs) in the world. The materials that he grew were used in studies that led to the Physics Nobel prize in 1998. So, the best person in the world at something in this story is Loren Pfeiffer. I will write down about a conversation I had with him at the beginning of my third year. By that time I have had a couple of failed projects under my belt and I was seeking out for advice. To whom better to ask than to a person who is the best in world at something? Loren must be having an easy time with his experiments, I thought.

I knocked on Loren’s door and he replied back “WHAT’S UP?” – in my early PhD years I found it a little bit unusual to chat in casual tone with a famous senior physicist. “Loren, I am looking for some help”, I said and he looked at me confused. I told him how I have had difficulties with my projects and that they were not in good shape. He still looked confused. “I was wondering how was your PhD experience?”, he looked at me and the furrow in his eyebrows changed to a surprise. Lorent told me all about his PhD work back in the 60’s, a training in experimental particle physics. At the end of his PhD, he managed to pull out some good papers. There were some good takeaways from that story, but more on that another time.

“Physics is hard!”, Loren said to me at the end of his PhD tale. I was shocked. At that time I more or less had a good perception that physics was hard – it had not been working for me for about a year. Nevertheless, it surprised that such a senior famous person told me that. I had thought that by his age (80’s) he had master it all and everything was like a breeze. Well, if Loren told me that physics is hard I better take his word seriously – I think he is very good at what he does. In general every kind of research is hard, that is the take away, and is hard for everybody, even to the talented ones.

I told you at the beginning that Loren is the best in the world at growing the best quality of GaAs. “I haven’t been able to break the record, no matter what we do the mobility is stuck at 37 million”, Loren told me. I was very surprised to hear that he had been failing for the past 15 years, trying all his best to pass the 37 million mark. Even though he had so much recognition under his belt he still felt that he fails quite often. That sounded a little sad to me, but I don’t think it bother him. Even up to this day he keeps trying, and it turns out they recently broke the world record one more time.

The world record back in the 2000’s was 37 million. At the end of last year it went up to 44 million. Last week on Thursday morning I measured 49 million at 25 milliKelvin in one of the samples he grew. Now, Loren needs to find a way to gets past 49. On Friday morning I saw him growing more gallium arsenide as I walk past his lab carrying some liquid nitrogen for our dilution refrigerator. We smiled and said hi. Physics is hard (research is hard) and being the best in the world at something does not make it easier. He is still relentlessly pursuing his goal. After that I felt more relaxed and started to think about life-long journeys.

After the conversation I had with Loren it became easier for me to have a chat with him – it was easier to connect. On the other hand, hearing his personal view on how he was doing allowed me to break some of the isolation that I felt when I thought nothing works for me.

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