Thursday, July 30, 2009

You sound like you're from LON-DON!

In the event the title of this post may seem familiar, it's from the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall, when Paul Rudd's forgetful character approaches an injured Londoner calling for help.

Anyway, Friday, July 17 I left for London. There are direct trains to London leaving from Brussels, the only requirement is that you have to check into the train station a half hour before the train is scheduled to depart. Once the train gets to the coast, it passes through a chunnel to get to the UK. Unlike all the other countries I've visited so far, I had to through customs in order to get to the UK. This process was essentially the same thing you see on international flights, you go through a passport check and then declare any goods that you bought.

The train ride from Brussels to London only took about 2 hours. A high-speed train rides this route and there are very few stops, so this contributes to the short commute between the cities. I arrived in London fairly late in the evening. As a result, I didn't have much time to explore. I first made my way to my hostel so that I could drop off my duffel bag. I forgot to mention that in order to get to the hostel, I had to use the metro, which they apparently call the 'tube.' Similar to what I mentioned about the metro in Paris, the 'tube' here in London works just like any other major city (not surprisingly). You can buy individual one-way tickets or you can purchase a card and deposit money onto it as you go. I opted to purchase the card since that also gives me a nice souvenir to take home.

This is the hostel I stayed at. I forgot to take a picture for myself, so I grabbed this off of google images. This hostel was advertised as a "party hostel," partly due to the fact that a bar is directly attached to the hostel and there's a back door (without a bouncer) into the bar. Another reason is because you probably won't be getting a good night's sleep unless you're intoxicated. As such, I didn't get much sleep here. The environment was fun though, receptionists were friendly, fellow hostelers were nice and easy to get along with. I met people from Canada, Australia, France, Denmark and the UK.

Since I got into London late on the first night, I decided to just walk around the area. Within close proximity of the hostel were the Tower of London Bridge and the Tower of London.

On the right of this photograph, you can see a conical-like building. I was just reading an article the other day about the world's 18 strangest buildings and that cone building claims a spot on that list. It's called the Gherken and is the second tallest building in London.

After walking around the area I decided to call it a night. I dedicated the following day entirely to sight-seeing. My first stop was Big Ben and the Parliament houses.

As expected, the neo-gothic building is much more majestic in person. The 150th anniversary of the bell tower was celebrated just this past May. On the right is Westminster Bridge.

Along the River Thames and next to Westminster Bridge, there's the London Eye and an aquarium. The London Eye is 443 ft high and is the tallest Ferris wheel in all of Europe. As opposed to the ferris wheels you find at local carnivals, this ferris wheel has 32 pods that are shaped sort of like jelly beans and are completely sealed and air conditioned.

After walking around a little bit more, I made my way to Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guard. First of all, the crowd outside the palace was fantastically enormous.

Tour buses lined the perimeter of the palace and every direction I looked I could see a tour guide holding up some sort of object (umbrella or sign usually) and a large group (usually consisting of Asians wearing headphones) marching behind them.

I got to Buckingham Palace early enough to catch the Changing of the Guard ceremony. My tour book made statements about how it's overrated, but I wanted to see it anyway. After an hour of waiting outside the gates, two bands marched into the palace coming from two different directions. They then took turns playing songs. I didn't even notice that the guards in front of the palace even switched out since too much focus was centered around the bands.

Here are some random pictures I took while walking around the city looking for a place to have lunch.

For a late lunch, I stopped at a place called Porter's where I got a meat pie.

While I was in the UK, I figured I would try the traditional food. Anyway, the meat pie was filled with steak and mushrooms and doused in a salty sauce made from Guinness beer.

Eventually I finished it, but it did take almost 45 minutes. The meat pie wasn't what I was expecting. When I first saw it, I thought that the crust would be doughy, however that was definitely not the case. Instead, it was flaky, like a croissant. At first I wasn't too excited about having a pie for lunch, especially one filled with meat. Like most people I associate pie with dessert, so my mind was stuck at a crossroad trying to figure out what to expect. It was delicious though and I finished the entree fully satiated.

For dessert, I got a spotted dick.

It's a spongy and sweet cake topped with custard and stuffed with dried fruit. For those who frequent Asian dim sums for brunch, the texture and taste of the spotted dick reminded me of ma lai gao, the spongy yellow cake that you'll usually find on the dessert cart at dim sum. For those who don't have experience with dim sum, ma lai gao is a traditional Chinese steamed cake. It's spongy, yellow, and has a light sweet taste.

After filling my stomach, I then found my way into Trafalgar Square, the most recognized square in the UK, and some argue, the world. The building on the left is the National Gallery, which houses a vast assortment of artists. Here they have Van Gogh's Sunflowers, Van Gogh's Chair, Two Crabs, and A Wheatfield with Cypresses. It also houses works from Michelangelo, Rubens, Titian, and da Vinci. Sorry for the lack of photos, once again photography was adamantly prohibited. Museum workers were stationed in every room and chased down anyone taking pictures.

By the time I left the museum, evening had already begun to set in. I hung out outside Trafalgar Square for a little bit, just adsorbing the opportunity and coming to the realization that I'm in London! Eventually I made my way back to the area where my hostel was located. I wandered around a little bit and walked around the Tower of London.

Several noticeable figures of history that were imprisoned here include Ann Boleyn and Sir Walter Raleigh. For the rest of the night I went back to the hostel and chatted with some of the other guests.

Relaxing in Leuven

During the week after I got back from Paris, my dad made a quick visit to Leuven before the end of his business trip. Two nights during the week we met up after work for dinner and a beer in the city center of Leuven.

On the first night, we went to Oude Markt (Old Market), which is the pedestrianized square filled with bars and restaurants along the perimeter.

The first night we went to a place called The Meating Room. It's a steak restaurant situated right in Oude Markt. The menu was littered with all different types and cuts of steak. I'm no steak aficionado, so I randomly chose one off the menu.

The fries were complementary with the meal. I recently discovered that the reason why Belgium's fries are unique is because they are fried twice. The first dose is to cook them while the second is used to brown them.

My dad couldn't finish his steak. Not quite sure why he's proud of that...

For dessert, we got some vanilla ice cream with raspberry topping.

I forgot to take a picture of it before we started to devour it. My bad.

The next night, we went to a restaurant right on the main shopping street in Leuven. Right after you sit down, they give you a complementary appetizer.

The small slice on the right is foie gras and the cup on the left was a cold soup. For an appetizer, we got grilled king crab. First of all, I've never had grilled crab before, so that was new. Secondly, the crab was by no means 'king.'

For the main entree, I got a lamb rack. I just noticed that I tend to pick lamb a lot during my meals. I think next time I go out I'll stay away from it.

For dessert, we got a strawberry dish.

On the right is a scoop of strawberry sorbet. On the left, there's a really dense yogurt-like mass of strawberry. I actually wasn't a fan of this dish. The yogurt-like substance tasted a little bitter and there was something inside the mound that conflicted with the texture of the yogurt.

Anyway, that concluded our dinners in Leuven.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Paris Day 3!

The Sunday of that weekend was my last day in Paris. My train was leaving around 8 pm, so I had most of the day to explore with my dad. The morning was a little overcast as you can see from the image below.

For today, my dad and I decided to dedicate most of our day to exploring the Louvre. From our hotel, we walked over to the museum. The trek only took about half an hour.

Right in front of the Louvre, there's a small arch. In the background you can see the glass pyramid. Unsurprisingly the Louvre is the most visited museum in the world. The museum is composed of 3 separate wings that house over 35,000 objects ranging from 6th century BC to the 19th century. In total, the floor plan spans about 652,300 square feet. It is impossible to see everything in the museum. I imagine you could spend a week here and still not see everything.

The museum was absolutely packed with tour groups from all over the world.

It's interesting to note that the entrances to each wing are centered around the glass pyramid.

In the above image you see the glass pyramid from the inside. Stairs lead you below ground level and then on three edges of the square pyramid are the entrances to the exhibits.

Since there are such vast collections of antiquities at the Louvre, I'll only mention the major pieces that we saw.

The first major piece we ran into was the Venus de Milo.

The original spot where the sculpture was stored is undergoing renovation, so it was temporarily placed in a small hallway. As a result, the crowd in front of the statue was massively large. We essentially had to wait and push our way through to the front to take pictures. Anyway, this marble sculpture spans 6'8" and was sculpted sometime between 130 and 100 BC. The mystery of the statue is derived from her missing arms, which were lost along with the original stage on which the statue stood.

Our next stop was Winged Victory. The pathway to the statue was surprisingly majestic. A staircase rises up past an arch and focuses solely on this piece.

I know the picture is pretty blurry. The museum in general was a little dark and my camera had a hard time focusing. I think you can get the idea though.

While my dad and I were admiring the sculpture, museum workers actually cleared out the entire area of people. They made everyone move into the 2nd room away from the statue so that the area was absolutely clear down to the stairs before Winged Victory. I wasn't quite sure of the reason for this but my dad hypothesized that they need to do this in order to clear the area of lingering people so that the crowd can continue to move. Makes sense to me I guess.

On the way to see the Mona Lisa, we ran into this rather morbid painting.

There's a cleaver sliced half way into the man's head...

Anyway, we finally made our way into the room that features Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. I suspect it's the most famous painting in the world, but I'm guessing others may beg to differ based on preference. Oh well, to each their own.

The painting was in the least optimum environment to capture a good photograph. First of all, there's a barricade that circles the painting that prevents people from getting within 10 feet of it. Secondly, it's enclosed in a a glass casing, making flash photography/red-eye prevention flashes reflect off the surface. Lastly, there's an eager mob of probably 50 people all shoving their way closer to the barricade, pushing people out their way and jabbing shoulders with cameras trying to capture the perfect angle. I was practically sweating by the time I got to the front of the crowd since the museum was so hot and everyone was packed in like sardines.

From the picture above you can see that it's true what people say about the painting being surprisingly small.

Afterwards we then found the Dying Slave sculpted by Michelangelo between 1513 and 1516.

I'm assuming the back side of the sculpture was nude based on the kid's surprised response on the left.

There was also a large sculpture garden nearby.

We also saw the stone on which Hammurabi's Code is inscribed.

The code dates back to about 1790 BC. It's quite miraculous to be standing next to such history.

In the Egyptian antiquities section there's a sitting statue of Ramses.

I touched this one too!

There were also a couple sphinxes.

After walking around the museum for hours, my dad and I decided to stop at the museum restaurant for a late lunch. The food was surprisingly cheap considering it was a museum restaurant. It was also quite good.

I got a steak with potatoes.

For dessert, I got a spongy cake filled with custard and fresh strawberries.

We walked around the museum a little bit more afterwards. We already hit all the major pieces, so I'm not going to elaborate on the rest of the antiquities that we saw. When we left, we just took some more pictures outside the glass pyramid.

Visiting the Louvre pretty much took all day. We didn't even get close to seeing everything, however, we were able to hit all the major pieces that we were aware of. Obviously if you ever go to Paris, the Louvre is a must see. Set aside at least an entire day to see the museum at a leisurely pace. You can see the big three (Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa, and Winged Victory) in maybe 1.5 hours if you rush, however it's much more pleasurable to take your time as you stroll through this gargantuan museum.

Sadly, the visit to the Louvre concluded my visit to Paris. I'm trying to make plans to go back in the next coming weeks, so hopefully that plan gets finalized.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

IMEC Update 7/25/09

I know I've neglected to discuss the research I'm doing over here in Belgium. Part of the reason is that my research groups on both sides of the pond require there own confidentiality. With respect to the Gracias lab, the work we've done with the nanocubes has not yet been published. As a result, I'm not at the liberty to provide details about their fabrication.

On the IMEC side, all employees have to sign a confidentiality waiver about not providing internal information to 3rd parties. You see these at almost every company, so it's not surprising that IMEC had their own.

Anyway, in terms of my day to day operations, I'm currently in the fabrication stage of the nanocubes. They're structurally similar to the microcontainers that we fabricate in the Gracias lab and their fabrication is based on lithography.

First, we need define a pattern for our structures. What shape/size do we want them to be? Here at IMEC, I'm currently working with structures that are approximately 500 nm, which in terms of relative size is about 200 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

In order to define a pattern, we first need to spin coat some type of resist material onto a silicon wafer. We then use photolithography or electron beam lithography to selectively remove the exposed or non-exposed portion of the film depending on whether the resist material is positive or negative. In the semiconductor industry, the go-to resist material is polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA). After exposing the film, it needs to be developed in solution such that certain areas of the film are selectively removed. After we define our pattern, we can then move onto the next step.

Material Deposition
After we have our pattern, we need to deposit some sort of metal onto a silicon wafer via thermal evaporation, electron beam evaporation, or sputter coating. In these steps, metal atoms are removed from a source and then deposited onto a sample. In terms of thermal evaporation, the metal source is heated and the solid evaporates, allowing metal atoms to rise and coat the wafer that's placed above the source. To learn more about these techniques, please consult wikipedia. There's no sense in me discussing these in depth here when there are outside sources available.

Once we have our material deposited, we need to go through a lift-off process. After completing the above steps, we have a silicon wafer coated with a resist and a metal. Depending on our pattern, some sections of the wafer consist of silicon/resist/metal and other sections are simply silicon/metal. In the lift-off process, we dissolve the resist and what remains is our pattern which is now composed of just a metal.

After repeating these processes several times, we can fabricate structures composed of different shapes and compositions.

As I mentioned earlier, for the past couple weeks I've been involved with fabricating our nanocubes. I've mostly been in the clean room making samples using the techniques I described above. All throughout the process I'm checking the condition of the samples after each step both with an optical microscope and a scanning electron microscope (SEM).

One of my highlights so far while working here at IMEC is my personal operation of the SEM. These instruments cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and it's been exciting to operate these on my own. Undergrads at Hopkins aren't trained on the Materials Science SEM, so I've never been able to operate the instrument back at school.

One of my other highlights while here at IMEC has been working with hydrogen fluoride (HF). It's a very dangerous chemical such that when it comes into contact with water it forms hydrofluoric acid, which is incredibly corrosive. It interferes with nerve function and if it contacts your skin, you probably wouldn't even notice the burn. If you've ever taken a chemical safety class you've probably seen the effects of hydrofluoric acid. If not, you can google it if you're interested. However, be warned that some images may be disturbing.

Granted, the HF I've used was buffered, so it wasn't pure HF. The risks however still apply. My first use of HF was a very memorable event and I think I'll forever associate HF with IMEC and Belgium. I admit that might have sounded vaguely nerdy, but we're all nerds at Hopkins, right?

Anyway, that's what I've been up to at IMEC the last couple weeks. Fabrication and imaging. Once I have final structures I'll be taking optical measurements of my samples. In the next week or two I should hopefully be starting that up.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Paris Day 2!

The following morning we got up early to get a head start on our sightseeing tour. We walked over to the Eiffel tower.

Since the lines were rather long, we didn't want to waste hours waiting. Instead we just took some pictures and continued onwards. Perhaps if I make a second trip to Paris I'll go up the tower.

Walking around Paris, you get multiple views of the Eiffel Tower. So here's another one.

In order to get around the city, my dad and I got tickets for a hop-on hop-off bus. The bus stops at all major tourist attractions. During the ride we passed by a museum.

Admission to the museum was free, so we did actually check it out a little bit. There were small antiquity exhibits along with some Greek sculptures. It was nothing compared to the Louvre, of which I'll discuss later. Anyway, our first stop off the bus was Notre Dame Cathedral.

Construction started in the 12th century and it was completed in 1345. It was one of the first gothic cathedrals and also one of the first to use flying buttresses. The lines to enter the cathedral dissipated rather quickly. Since the line continuously moves, you can get inside in a matter of minutes. Admission was surprisingly free.

Afterwards, we took the tour bus to the Opera House.

Right next to the Opera House we stopped by at a restaurant for lunch.

I got a braised lamb shoulder. Doesn't it look just so succulent? I only wish I had another one. The portion was surprisingly large.

My dad and I walked around the city for most of the afternoon. We couldn't stay out too long because we needed to get back to the hotel so that we could change for the night's festivities.

After changing into more formal clothes at the hotel, we ventured off to find the meeting point for our night cruise along the Seine River. The cruise was just a normal excursion you would find in any other city. You hop and and then drive around the river to see the sights.

During the 1 hour ride, we saw

The outside of the Orsay Museum, the 2nd most visited museum in Paris, the Louvre being the first.

The back of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

The Alexander III bridge. It's the most decorated bridge in Paris. Four gilt-bronze statues watch over the bridge and 12 lights span the perimeter.

At the end of the ride it started to get dark outside. The conclusion of our excursion led us to this gorgeous view of the Eiffel Tower lit up at night. At 10:00 pm, lights on the tower continuously flash. Unfortunately the video is out of focus, but you get the idea of what was going on.

After the boat tour we went to see a cabaret show at the Moulin Rouge. Going to Paris, we felt somewhat obligated to make a stop here. The show currently on right now is called Feerie. The closest translation we could get was "A wonderful life."

About the show. It was very tasteful and classy. Although it was a cabaret, there was not an ounce of sleaziness/shadiness/seediness about it. For the first 20 or so minutes, you could barely tell that the dancers were topless. In the beginning, the woman wore several necklaces that strategically covered up the upper portion of their bodies. After that though, it was blatantly obvious (as in their costumes didn't even try to mask their chests). In total, there were probably 100 males and female dancers, the majority of which being female.

The show was about an hour and forty-five minutes long with 60 songs the women danced to. Although the show was entirely in French, I don't think it was necessary to understand since there wasn't a significant story line. Some scenes didn't even have any dialogue. Only a fraction of the songs consisted of the women actually singing, and even then I got the feeling that they were lip syncing. I tried following the women's lips with the music and at times it didn't seem to fit.

One of the most memorable scenes during the show was when a water tank half the size of the stage rose up from the ground. In addition to water, the tank was filled with pythons 6-8 feet in length. During this scene/song, a scantily clad woman pranced around the stage and jumped into the pool of water. At this point she proceeded to perform underwater acrobatics with these snakes in hand.

For a more in depth review, please check out this guy's review. He seems to be an avid theater goer.