This week's Fresh Story is especially surreal for me because I'm composing it from the beautiful Halifax Central Library. That's right; I'm here for a few days for research, relaxation, and, of course, Nocturne. Just had an excellent brunch at Black Sheep*, now it's time to write.
The third and final part of The Doane Group is below. If you're in the "battery scene" then there might be a few characters in this one that seem familiar to you. I would, however, like to remind everyone that this is a fictional story and any resemblance to actual individuals, living or dead.... blah blah blah... is purely coincidental.
*I never thought I'd say this, but they have an absolutely killer side salad. Seriously, if you're ever up here, you gotta get in on that action.
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The Doane Group - part 3
In addition to reading the Feynman book, I kept myself busy during the next few days by taking care of some of my ex-pat obligations such as setting up a Canadian bank account, getting a phone, and registering for my Social Insurance Number. I tried to keep myself occupied during the day but I would think about Jelly Belly before I went to bed and I’d start crying. I missed my dog and I missed my girlfriend and I missed my friends, but most of all I missed my dog. I kept having to remind myself that this was it; this was the sacrifice that I had made in order to be here. I just had to focus on making the pain worth it in the end.
And then it was Thursday. The symposium was being held at the medical school on campus and featured six speakers, a poster session, and a panel discussion at the end. Zan was going on at eleven and Jim was speaking at three thirty, right before the panel discussion. Having played hooky for the past three days, my guilt compelled me to get there at 9AM and sit through the whole symposium. There were a handful of people scattered throughout the seats of the lecture hall when I walked in. I found an aisle seat midway up and sat down.
I flip open my bag and pull out a paper that's folded down the middle lengthwise and begin reading one side of it. This was one of the newer papers to come out of the Doane group and I’d already read it a couple of times before so it was covered with notes and yellow highlighter marks. Before I came up here I’d used the MIT online research database, which I still had access to for some reason, to print out Jim’s ten most recent and ten most cited papers. This paper was one of the ten most recent and was written by a guy named Sachar. The author had used high precision voltage measurements to study degradation and self-discharge in lithium-ion batteries while stored in the charged state. He then used that data to develop a theoretical model to explain long-term battery failure mechanisms. I was reviewing his calculations, making sure I was 100% clear on how he had come to his conclusions, when I heard Zan’s lofty Belgian syllables come floating down the hallway and in through entrance at the left side of the classroom.
I look up from my paper so see Zan and Jim walking into the symposium together. I decide to wait a little and let them get settled in before I head over to say hello.
I walk up cautiously behind Zan as he's finishing up discussing some matter with one of the symposium organizers. ‘Zan,’ I put my hand on his shoulder and stuck out my other handin greeting. ‘Long time, no see.’
‘Alex!,’ he says as he turns around and shakes my hand. ‘How’s it going? How are you liking Canada?’
There is no shortage of stories about Xander de Groot; some of them true, most of them exaggerated. But, one fact that I can absolutely attest to (and the one that I think best summarizes who he is) is this; at the time he was hired, Zan was the youngest professor in the history of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was 24 years old and it was the first job he'd ever had.
‘Good, good!’ I say, as I shake his hand. ‘Just, ah, just gettin’ settled in.’ I motion over towards Jim with my eyes. ‘Just waitin’ on this guy to show up so I can get some work done.’ I reach my hand out towards Jim. ‘Hello Jim. Nice to see you again.’
‘Hello Alex,’ he says, as he shakes my hand.
‘So,’ we release our grips and I hold my hands out to my sides as if to present myself. ‘I’m here.’
‘Good! Good, good, good.’ He puts his hands on his hips and kicks his head back as he nods. There was a curvy nature to Jim’s words; like his voice projected out to you straight from his throat. ‘You talk to Tammy?' he asks. 'She get you all squared away?’
Aside from being heavy-hitters in the world of battery research, Zan and Jim had very little in common. Let’s start with appearances; Zan mostly wore European, slim-cut suits with pointy leather shoes whereas Jim adopted a more utilitarian approach to clothing; on the few occasions that I’d met him, including this one, he wore a nondescript t-shirt tucked into denim shorts and a pair of those clunky white new balances that so many middle-aged dads seemed to eventually succumb to.
It was also interesting to note how differently each man carried the weight of his accomplishments. Zan was a wunderkind that had achieved (and exceeded) every single academic and professional expectations that had been placed upon him. He taught a graduate course in thermodynamics at MIT that was considered a weed-out class. When I’d talked to my friends that had taken this course, their feedback was basically that, yeah, you learn a thing or two about thermo, but, above all, you learn to accept the fact that, no matter how hard you try, you will never, ever be as smart as de Groot. Jim, on the other hand, was less artful and seemed to slink away from the blinding light of his success. After talking with him for a few minutes, you quickly got the impression that all of the dozens (and possibly even hundreds) of awards, medals, and commendations that he’d been given over the years were probably stuffed away in a box somewhere in the back of his closet. I was proud to be a part of his group.
We made small talk, to the extent that Jim was capable of small talk, before returning to our seats for the start of the symposium. Just before Zan is scheduled to go on, I notice a group of graduate-student-aged people walk in together and make a clandestine movement towards a row of seats close to the entrance. Zan’s presentation was a sleek, polished version of one that I’d seen him give a few times in the past. He had, once again, succeeded at making the world of computational materials exploration for novel cathode materials seem sexy and cool and exciting and the crowd ate it up. The moderator had to eventually stop the subsequent Q&A session with a few hands still in the air so that we would have time to break for lunch and the poster session.
When we returned from the break, I sat through a few more presentations that, while captivating, were nonetheless irrelevant to my research. Then it was time for Jim to go on. As with Zan’s talk, just before Jim was set to go on I notice the same group walk in stealthily and take seats up in the front two rows. This time there seemed to be about ten additional members. This must be the Doane group, I thought. I studied their faces as they sat down; I would be meeting all of them very soon.
Jim’s talk was exactly as I expected it to be; practical and data-driven; no frills. He talked about the work that his lab had done, including the High Resolution Cycler, but he also spent a good amount of time discussing the battery industry as a whole. He was surprisingly candid about some of the techniques that his largest sponsor, Method 6, uses to maintain a stronghold in the battery industry. He had a whole slide dedicated to a practice that Method 6 calls letting the pig get fat. Basically, this is where Method 6 would discover breakthroughs in battery chemistry and, rather than going through the effort of implementing those inventions into their current infrastructure, they would wait for some other battery company to discover them on their own, implement them, and start making a profit before the Method 6 legal team came through and sued the pants off of them for infringement of intellectual property. Jim relayed all of this with a hint of disgust in his voice. I would come to find out that there were actually several papers that had come out of the Doane group that Method 6 would not allow to be published. They would have the final draft notarized and then lock it away in a safe somewhere until the pig got fat enough for them to file suit.
After his talk there was a lengthy Q&A that, once again, the moderator had to end in order to get on to the panel discussion. As soon as Jim’s segment ended, the group up front silently stood up and left the room as a unit. I decided to stick around for the panel.
The panel crawled along as the speakers pontificated and waxed intellectual with each new question. I could see Jim growing physically more and more impatient. Finally, after a particularly long-winded answer from one of the other speakers, Jim raised his hand.
The moderator raised his chin up at Jim. ‘Yes. Professor Doane?’
‘Hey, ah, do you think we could wrap this up?’
‘Yeah, ah,’ he spins his two index fingers out in front of him like he's turning a hamster’s wheel. ‘Do you think we can go ahead and finish this thing up? I’d like to talk to Professor de Groot about research before he has to head back to the states.’
‘Uhhh..’ the moderator raises his eyebrows and looks out towards the audience for affirmation. ‘Well,’ he pauses momentarily. ‘What time is it,’ he says, as he looks down at his watch.
‘It’s four thirty four,’ Jim answers into the microphone in front of him. ‘This thing was supposed to be over at four thirty. We’re already over time.’
This gets a chuckle from the audience.
‘Well, uh…’ the moderator looks down from the podium and scans the faces of the other members of the panel. ‘Well I guess that’s it, then,’ he says, as he shrugs his shoulders. ‘I want to--’ he stops and looks over at Jim, who has already stood up and is now making his way back over to his seat next to Zan. ‘I want to thank everybody for coming out and joining us.’ His eyes are still following Jim, who has his back to him and is now standing in front of his seat and putting on his bookbag. Jim does not seem to notice that everyone in the room is watching him. ‘I would like to thank our panel,’ he motions over toward the people still seated at the table to his right, ‘and Professor Doane,’ he motions towards Jim who, without looking up, raises his hand up in the air in acknowledgement, ‘and everyone who made this symposium happen…’
The moderator begins reading off an exhaustively detailed list of collaborators as people start to get up and gather their things. I grab my bag and run down to catch up with Zan and Jim before they leave. Zan shakes my hand and wishes me luck and Jim and I make a plan to meet at his office tomorrow at 8AM to discuss my future in the Doane group.
 This was the summer of 2012. The practice of letting the pig get fat is no longer allowed. Now, in order to have any claim on new inventions, one has to file an official patent application with the US Patent Office. Method 6 is back to making their money the old-fashioned way.