And now for something completely different – ?


The MacDiarmid Institute has completely changed my retirement — a carefully planned withdrawal from research. Among other things it introduced me to a professor from Lausanne who attended AMN-2 in Queenstown.

That chance meeting, and a discussion we had about some Raman data I had on a complex ferroelectric, Cd pyroniobate, resulted in an invitation to work in her Ceramics Laboratory in École Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne, EPFL. I have had the opportunity to spend about half of my time there in the past two years.

EPFL is a technical university situated in the outskirts of Lausanne. It was formed as a French version of ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich, and for the past few decades the Swiss have done a great deal to develop the institute. The Ceramics Laboratory is in Materials Engineering, but despite an applied bias in comparison with the MacDiarmid Institute, the staff are predominantly physicists. And non-Swiss. Their work is focused on ferroelectrics, of which I knew almost nothing, but nonetheless the entire experience has been both successful and rewarding. We have managed to exploit our complementary interests, theirs in all aspects of ferroelectricity and mine in spectroscopy and semiconductors. During the last month we had a letter in Nature Materials based on a NZ-Switzerland-UK-Czech collaboration.

I was not the only MacDiarmid presence in EPFL, though all the rest were in the Physics Department. Jeff Tallon visited for several weeks in 2006 and Erwan Hémery, then a PhD student working with Grant Williams and me, visited to use a highfield magnet in Lazlo Forro’s laboratory. Simon Granville, who completed his PhD with Ben Ruck and me, took up a postdoctoral fellowship in early 2007. It has been a pleasure to have coffee with Simon every week or so.

I was told when I agreed to go to EPFL that I could work on NZ programmes one day a week, but when I got there it was clear that the assumption was that the other six days were for EPFL. Nonetheless, I managed some great walks in the mountains and in the vineyards. The vineyards above the lake to the East of Lausanne climb up a steep hill on terraces, with lovely small towns situated some 30 minutes walk apart. It was first planted 800 years ago by monks escaping from Burgundy. The entire area, Lavaux, achieved World Heritage status a year ago. It’s very beautiful, and produces a few reasonable wines as well.

It’s likely that Lausanne will be familiar to most as the Olympic capital, and it is also the home of Nestlé. It is a small city in spectacular surroundings on the shores of Lake Geneva, facing Evian and the French Alps across the lake. Along the lake to the West is Geneva, and to the East one finds Vevey, Charlie Chaplin’s final home, and Montreux, where the Russian aristocracy wintered. Those histories still figure; there is a statue of Charlie on the lakeshore at Vevey and Montreux is still a resort where only the wealthy can afford to stay.

Lausanne is the home port of Alinghi, and when I first arrived there was a scale model (about 1:4) outside the building. The staff in some of the other Materials Engineering laboratories worked on composites used in Alinghi, and I faced a few comments about Team NZ’s losses. In the end everyone agreed that the New Zealanders on Alinghi had beaten the New Zealanders on Emirates.