Conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe Class of 1992.
Hosted by Will Bachman.

Episode: 86

Chris Ball,  Research Scientist in the ElectroScience Laboratory

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Show notes

After graduation, Chris Ball spent his summer working in Cambridge before returning to Columbus, Ohio, where he began graduate school in physics at The Ohio State University. He worked with Professor Frank DeLuca, a world-renowned researcher in microwave spectroscopy. Chris’ research focused on the microwave absorption of sulfur dioxide and its relationship to NASA’s Microwave Limb Sounder instrument.


Studying Interstellar Bands

During his time at OSU, Chris collaborated with Professor Patrick Thaddeus from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who was looking to hire for a postdoc position. Chris moved back to Cambridge and worked in a lab in Somerville. He continued to do spectroscopy, but this time focused on long chains of carbon that don’t occur naturally on Earth. These chains are unstable and are routinely observed in radio telescopes and optical telescopes. Chris and Thaddeus attempted to study the diffuse interstellar bands, which were optical features observed in telescope measurements that had never been explained over many years. They used laser spectroscopy to measure these bands and try to determine if any exotic carbon chains were responsible for them. Unfortunately, none of the exotic carbon chains were found, but the experience was rewarding.


The Intersection of Science and Engineering

After their first child was born, Chris and his family decided to move back to Columbus, Ohio, where he was offered a position at Battelle where his career began to focus on the intersection of science and engineering, specifically on developing sensor technologies and communications technologies. He worked on defense and security applications, such as detecting chemical and biological weapons, explosives, and narcotics. He also worked on pollution monitoring systems and handheld sensor technologies. Around  2015, Chris became disenchanted with Batel’s strategic direction and started looking for alternatives. He found a similar job at Ohio State University’s ElectroScience Laboratory, which focused on radar and communication systems. He left Batel, which coincided with his marriage falling apart. He moved offices, moved to an apartment, and started a consulting business.


Working on the CubeSat Satellite at NASA

Chris continued to focus on sensor and communication systems development. He was involved in a NASA program that built a CubeSat satellite, which was launched in 2018 from Wallops Island, Virginia, on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. The satellite went into orbit in July 2018. Chris discusses his exciting work in space, including developing sensors to detect toxic gasses and developing handheld infrared sensors for food and agricultural products. He is also working on an x-ray communication system, which uses X-rays as a carrier for wireless communications in space. In parallel with his work, he has a consulting company and has also discovered the joy of improv comedy, which he has been practicing for several months and now is part of an improv group called The Bunsen Burnouts.


Interstellar Clouds and Molecules

The discussion turns to interstellar clouds, and Chris explains what they are. There are many fundamental studies about the dynamics of molecules inside interstellar clouds and how they exist and might turn into stars in some regions. He also touches on the rotation of molecules, which is a fundamental discovery of quantum mechanics, and explains that, the transitions between rotational states in molecules are typically in the infrared part of the spectrum, while electronic transitions occur in the visible and ultraviolet part. However, molecules can also have bound atoms rotating, with quantized angular momentum and transitions corresponding to microwave frequencies.


Xray Communications Research

Chris talks about one of the projects he is proud of, X rays and the concept of wireless communications, which involve modulating a carrier frequency to transmit information. He explains that the idea of using X rays as a carrier and modulating them in some way came from discussions with NASA. NASA had a problem communicating with spacecraft during blackout periods when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. They developed a small X ray source that can be switched on and off quickly, allowing for about a gigahertz of bandwidth. This is better than current spaceborne optical systems, which can only transmit about a gigabyte of information per second. The team licensed this technology from NASA and applied its principles to X rays. X rays have significantly smaller wavelengths than optical systems, so they can propagate them much farther than optical systems. This could be advantageous for high data rate systems that can talk to Mars, as it would allow for interplanetary communication. Chris goes on to explain their process of research, feasibility of concepts, and demonstrating applicability. 


Detecting Drugs and Toxic Chemicals 

Chris has developed detectors for detecting drugs and toxic chemicals at extremely low concentrations and explains how these work. These detectors use microwave spectroscopy principles to measure gasses like formaldehyde in a low-pressure environment. The spectroscopic lines, which are sharp Gaussian distributions, are used to distinguish different gasses from each other and uniquely identify them. They achieve high sensitivity by making the lines taller and larger, and can be used in multipass configurations where the microwave beam passes through multiple times. This allows you to discriminate different gasses from each other and uniquely identify them like a fingerprint. Chris talks about a collaboration with his PhD advisor at Ohio State that led to the development of a mission adaptable chemical sensor funded by the Department of Defense. This sensor sucked in air and measured hundreds of different chemicals apart in a relatively short time. However, the technology is expensive due to the millimeter wave frequencies used in the microwave part of the system. The best available technologies cost around $60,000 for a transmitter and $50,000 for a receiver. This means that a $100,000 instrument is needed to buy the transmitter and receiver, along with all the electronics and pumps.


Influential Harvard Professors and Courses

Chris discusses their experiences at Harvard, focusing on the core curriculum courses and expository writing as the most valuable course he took. His advisor encouraged him to write a NASA fellowship proposal, which was well-written due to their expository writing skills. This experience has made him more valuable in various jobs, including red team reviews and proposal reviews for NASA and other funding agencies.  He also shares their experiences with math 22 and physics courses, and he mentions working at the high energy physics lab during their junior year and senior year, which was a valuable experience as they helped build a prototype muon detector system and perform measurements. Chris took advantage of opportunities to get involved with research while at Harvard, working at the high energy physics lab during the summer before his junior year and after his senior year. This experience allowed him to learn a lot about the science of expository writing and how to write effectively in academic settings.



01:03 Career path after Harvard graduation with a focus on physics research

06:04 Career progression from postdoc to industry to academia

10:39 Career changes, space research, and improv comedy

18:58 Interstellar clouds and molecular rotation

22:57 Wireless communication technologies and innovations

27:02 Using X-rays for high-speed communication in space

33:39 Developing infrared detectors for space applications with a focus on sensitivity and accuracy

39:16 Chemical sensing technology and its applications

45:36 Writing tips and research experiences at Harvard



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  1. Chris Ball


Chris Ball, Will Bachman


Will Bachman  00:03

Hello, and welcome to the 92 report conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1992. I’m your host will Bachman. And I’m excited to be here today with Chris ball. Chris, welcome to the show.


Chris Ball  00:16

Well, thank you for having me. Well, this is wonderful.


Will Bachman  00:19

So Chris, tell me about your journey since graduating from Harvard.


Chris Ball  00:25

Okay, well, immediately after graduation, I, like spent the summer working in Cambridge for a few months. And then I went back to Columbus, Ohio, which is where I grew up. And started graduate school in physics at The Ohio State University, where I had the great fortune to work with a professor named Frank DeLuca, who’s a world renowned researcher in the microwave spectroscopy. So micro spectroscopy, we basically look at the rotations of molecules, microwave frequencies correspond to transitions between rotational states and molecules. And so we can, we can learn lots of interesting things about molecules and their their environment. So a lot of my work focused on using microwave spectroscopy as a tool to understand how molecules collide with each other in different environments. And so this was really exciting stuff, it was able to combine some of my interest in physics and quantum mechanics, but but sort of teetering on the edge of chemistry. So in my my first set of experiments that I did with, with Frank’s group, we were doing some laboratory work to support remote sensing studies that NASA and other folks were doing of the upper atmosphere. And there’s an instrument called the Microwave Limb Sounder, which is mounted on a satellite that measures different molecules in the upper atmosphere in the stratosphere, including sulfur dioxide, which if you remember, in 1991, there was an eruption of Mount Pinatubo. And it was an unusual volcano because it spewed an enormous amount of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, which was interesting, because in the stratosphere, sulfur dioxide undergoes reactions and becomes sulfuric acid and it becomes particulate. And those particulates in the upper atmosphere have an effect of blocking the sun. And so for a couple of years, there were global reductions in temperatures in the atmosphere as a result of this volcanic eruption. But one of the things that, that our work in the lab did is that we were able to measure different different properties of the microwave absorption of sulfur dioxide and relate it to the measurements that were taken by NASA, the microwave, them sounder instrument, so that we could get a better idea of what happens in the upper atmosphere, and how sulfur dioxide turns into sulfuric acid, and, you know, all of these kinds of things. But that was kind of a first study, the main focus of my research, I was looking at collisions of molecules at extremely low temperatures, just a few degrees above absolute zero, to mimic conditions that you would find in interstellar clouds. And what’s interesting at these low temperatures is that molecules move very slowly. So instead of colliding with each other, like ping pong balls as you would, in normal Earth atmosphere, out in space, these things are moving very slowly, and they kind of come near each other and rotate around each other a few times, and then they they separate. And that causes a lot of disruption in the kinds of measurements that you would make with a radio telescope, in terms of, you know, what, what the environment does to the measurements, and you can use that information to get a better idea of the conditions inside of these interstellar clouds, which is important for astronomers and astrophysics and an astrophysicist to better understand, like star forming regions that happen inside these interstellar clouds. So did a lot of really cool stuff. In graduate school, I got to take a couple trips to Germany as part of a collaboration with my professor and a research group over there. And I also got married during graduate school, which was a big step. But when I finished graduate school, I wasn’t exactly sure what the next step should be. So I thought about academic careers, and I thought about going into industry, because a lot of the work I was doing with microwave technology was directly applicable to a lot of, you know, things that companies were doing and so because I couldn’t decide I did what most undecided people did and in took a postdoc position for a couple of years, which was was kind of coincidental. During my time at OSU. I reconnected with Professor Patrick Thaddeus, who was from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. And I had met once or twice when I was an undergraduate at Harvard. And so he came to a visit to Ohio State. And as luck would have it, he was looking to hire a postdoc. So it was almost too easy. I, I signed on with Pat fattiest. And I moved back to Cambridge, and well, actually, Somerville, where I lived and worked in back at Harvard for the next two years, in a lab in the basement of Pierce, which was kind of cool to go back and, you know, revisit a lot of the places I love to go to and see the the various things that had changed just in the six years since we had graduated. So I was there for two years, and I was doing some really cool stuff with still doing spectroscopy. But now I was doing laser spectroscopy instead of microwave spectroscopy. And we were still doing sort of laboratory astrophysics. But this time I was looking at molecules that don’t occur naturally on Earth are these really long chains of carbon, you know, with 910 11 carbon chains in a row. And these things, you know, they’re very unstable, they don’t occur naturally on Earth, but in space, where you’re not undergoing collisions very often, these things, you know, are routinely observed in radio telescopes and optical telescopes. So I, you know, we figured out ways to make these things in the lab, and I would do measurements with the lasers. And the problem we were trying to study, there was this really old problem called the of the diffuse interstellar bands, which were these optical features that were observed in, in telescope measurements, optical telescope measurements, that had never been explained over over many, many years. And so our attempt to do laboratory laser measurements was to see if we could figure out if any of these exotic carbon chains were responsible for any of the diffuse interstellar bands. And unfortunately, none of them were but still, you have to, you have to try. So I did that for a couple years. It was a wonderful experience. I loved working with Pat Thaddeus, he was a great guy just passed away a couple of years ago. But I had to cut things short. It was a three year appointment that I was there for two years. And at some time during year two, my first child was born just down the street at Mount Auburn hospital. And kind of figured out that it was really difficult to support a family and a child living in the Boston area, and working as a postdoc, not making very much money. So I started to look at other jobs, and started looking at academic jobs as well as industry jobs. And in the end, for family based reasons, we decided to go back to Columbus, Ohio, so we’d be around my family and I was offered a great opportunity at a company called Mattel. Located in Columbus, I had some offers for academic positions, but but Patel being an industry was offering me almost twice as much money which was hard to turn down when you had a new baby to care for. So I went to work at Mattel and Columbus, so sort of completed my back and forth from Columbus to Cambridge to Columbus to Cambridge to Columbus. And that Patel, I started doing more applied kinds of work, a kind of pretty much from starting at Battelle. Until now my career has really kind of focused on the intersection of science and engineering. So basically, what I do in my career is I figure out how to exploit fundamental scientific principles such as spectroscopy or other optical effects or electronic effects to develop sensor technologies or communications technologies. And the so it’s a bit more applied, you know, sometimes we’ll build prototypes of things and see if they work. And generally once we get to the prototype stage, I kind of pass that off to someone else because I’m not really interested in the the advanced engineering that goes into turning something like that into a product and, and the commercialization and all of that stuff I’m more interested in, in that intersection between the science and the engineering. When I was at Battelle, a lot of my work focused on defense and security applications. So I worked on sensor technologies and various processes to do things like detect chemical and biological weapons or explosives or narcotics. worked on a little bit on the helicopter brownout problem, which is a problem helicopters have landing in desert conditions that they kick up all the sand and Dustin can no longer have visibility to be able see where they’re going. I have worked on pollution monitoring systems, I worked on sort of like handheld sensor technologies, things like that. And it was all really interesting, I enjoyed a lot of my time, a lot of the projects that was the kind of job where you could show up and learn something new every day, I’d made a lot of lifelong colleagues and friends. And also during this time, I had two more kids. So, so things were going great. Until they didn’t go great. Around 2015, a lot of things kind of happened simultaneously, I started to grow a little disenchanted with the strategic direction that the company Patel was starting to take sort of moving more toward product development and doing less of the kind of early stage science engineering that I was most interested in. So I started to look at alternatives to my position. And then I don’t know, again, if it was just luck or good timing or, or, you know, knowing the right people to reach out to but I had some colleagues at Ohio State University, which is basically just across the street from Battelle. And I was able to find a very similar job as a staff research scientist at Ohio State at a place called the electro Science Laboratory, which is a research center and the College of Engineering. The Electro science lab is been around for about 80 years, they do a lot of fundamental work and radar and communication systems, antennas, optics, you know, all sorts of things basically right in line with what I’ve been doing throughout my whole career at that point. So I switched jobs and I left Patel in 2015, which is also when my marriage fell apart. So I I also moved offices and I moved to an apartment and and then I also started a consulting business at the same time. So I kind of did all these major life changes kind of at the same time, and things were a bit crazy for for a year or two. But let’s certainly settle down. Since I’ve been at Ohio State, a lot of my work continues to focus on the development of sensor and communication systems. I was involved in a really cool project where we built a CubeSat, which is a very small satellite about the size of a, like a large shoebox. This was a NASA program, where we were testing some technologies related to microwave remote sensing of the earth. So we’d have this two year flurry of activity where we designed and built payload engineering models and tested them and then integrated it into a spacecraft. And then it was launched in 2018. from Wallops Island, Virginia on a resupply mission to the International Space Station, our little satellite went on to the space station, and then they it was put into a Deployer. That was then kicked it out into orbit in July of 2018. And it operated for about a year and a half, it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere in November of 2020. So that was a really exciting thing that I got to do, I got to go to the launch and do all these really fun things, a lot of press and things like that get to talk a lot about, you know, make people excited about the spacecraft and some of the things that we were doing in space. And that was a lot of fun. I have also developed sensors to detect very low concentrations like part per trillion levels of toxic gases like formaldehyde and a cruel alien, you know, things are industrial pollutants that are very toxic and dangerous for people. I’ve developed a handheld infrared sensor that measures nutrients and contaminants in food and agricultural products. I’ve built infrared detectors for LIDAR instruments, which are basically like radar, but using lasers. And currently working on an x ray communication system, which seems kind of odd if you know, you know, X rays don’t really propagate very much on Earth. But in space, it’s a great way to potentially do communication. So we’re exploring using X rays as a as a carrier for communications, wireless communications and space. So all of this stuff is very exciting. I enjoy every day I go to work. Lately, I’ve also been serving as the interim director of the lab. This was sort of a short term opportunity that sort of came up and I thought, well, let me just try this out. See if I like it and I don’t know if it’s going to end in a few months. So I’m not going to complain about that. It’s a it’s been okay. In parallel with the work at OSU. As I said, I had a consulting consulting company. So I do some things on the side as I have time, which has been an important thing over the past few years because I’ve had multiple kids in college at the same time and try to get as much money as I can. Also, during this time, I met my girlfriend, Jeanette, who some of you listening might have met at the 25th reunion, Jeanette and I moved in together in 2019. We’ve been together ever since my oldest kid graduated from college and 22. And another is going to graduate this year. And my third kid is currently a freshman in college. So I guess I could stop that. Oh, there’s one other thing that in recent years that is a big deal, for me at least is I’ve discovered the joy of improv comedy. There was a workshop at Ohio State for STEM oriented, like improv games and things like that. And I had so much fun at this workshop that myself and six or seven others decided to kind of put a group together and keep practicing and we called ourselves the Bunsen burnouts. We, we do performances every every couple of months at various venues around Columbus. And it’s great. It’s just a bunch of nerdy, middle aged people getting up on stage and embarrassing themselves. It’s, it’s a lot of fun. And you know that one of the great things about improv is that, if you do it really well, it can be really funny. And if you completely screw up, it’s really funny. So, so you can’t lose. Right. So that’s been kind of my my latest non work endeavor that I’ve I’ve gotten a lot of joy out of, so I guess I’ll stop there.


Will Bachman  16:45

I love it. The Bunsen burnouts? Yeah. Wow. Okay, so I have a bunch of questions. First, is interstellar cloud. I just wanted to ask about that, like, what is an interstellar cloud? Exactly? In terms of how dense are they? Is it one atom per cubic meter? Or something? Or is it you know, you could put your hand through it, and you get a bunch of stuff in your hand, like, how dense are these things? And what are they made out of? Well,


Chris Ball  17:17

so um, interstellar clouds can be a varying densities, but they’re very sparse. So generally, you can go, you know, one particle per cubic centimeter, something like that. Which is, you know, it’s practically vacuum, right. So space, you know, you talk about space being a vacuum, but it’s not really a vacuum, there are molecules and atoms that are floating around. And a lot of what is found in these clouds are hydrogen and helium, the same same kinds of things you have in the sun. But there are also trace amounts of different types of molecules containing carbon and hydrogen. And, you know, carbon dioxide, or carbon monoxide is, is a prevalent gas and the interstellar medium, it’s used kind of as a, you know, for radio, astronomers can see carbon monoxide very easily. And it’s used as a way to kind of monitor temperatures in clouds and densities and clouds. But basically, in these clouds, that when you get to areas that are more dense, that’s where you start getting accumulation of materials, and the denser it gets, eventually, it can form into a ball of gas, and that ball of gas can grow into a star eventually. So So there are a lot of fundamental studies about the dynamics of molecules inside these these interstellar clouds and, and how they exist and how they might, in some regions turn into stars.


Will Bachman  18:58

Okay, so you said a order of magnitude, one particle, one atom, or cubic centimeter, right? So I do the quick math 100 times 100 times 100. Okay, so that’s 1 million molecules per cubic meter. Right? Give us context, what would like if it not interstellar cloud and its space space? This is not a cloud, but this is just regular space, instead of a million particles per cubic meter. What would what would it be? If it’s just normal space? Not a cloud?


Chris Ball  19:33

Um, I mean, it’s, it’s pretty close to, to vacuum, right.


Will Bachman  19:39

So just a handful, a handful of atoms per cubic meter.


Chris Ball  19:43

Yeah. So I guess, I’m trying to understand the question, I guess.


Will Bachman  19:49

Okay. So, if I’m not in an interstellar cloud, and I’m just in a place where you’d say, Okay, this is not in there. So Cloud, we’re between stars, but there’s no cloud Hear, right? It’s just space, just normal space. Like what I’m trying to understand how a cloud interstellar cloud would be different than a normal, Interstellar, like non cloud?


Chris Ball  20:11

Well, okay, so I guess maybe cloud is, you know, that’s a word that people use to talk about what is generally, the interstellar medium. And so the interstellar medium can have, you know, varying concentrations of particles throughout all of space. And there are some regions that have more particles than others. And those regions that have more particles than others, you know, we might call clouds or whatever. Oh, I gotcha. All right. So there’s, there’s molecules and atoms floating around everywhere. It’s just, you know, just not very many.


Will Bachman  20:47

Okay, next thing is, and I want to get to more of your scientific discovery stuff. But I just, I was curious. So hope you don’t mind. You mentioned rotation of molecules. And I was a physics major, and I was even a nuclear chain submarine officer. But so I was used to the idea of molecules bouncing around, it never really occurred to me that they’d also be rotating, I get it that atoms and electrons rotate. But molecules are also rotating around is that their normal state? They’re not just sort of sitting there. Oh, yeah. But they’re actually rotating around. Yeah, so.


Chris Ball  21:21

So when you think about an atom, like when you first learn quantum mechanics, you learn about the hydrogen atom, right, which has a proton in the nucleus and has electron, you know, swimming around. And that electron has different quantized energy levels. You know, that’s one of the the fundamental discoveries of of quantum mechanics is that the electrons that are around atoms and molecules have quantized energy states, well, when you get to a molecule, a molecule is two or more atoms that are bound together. So you think about your stick models of molecules. So let’s think about like carbon monoxide is a good example. So you have a carbon atom, and you have an oxygen atom, and they’re bound to each other. And so there’s electron there are electrons that are sort of floating around these two atoms. But the two atoms, if you can envision them also vibrate back and forth. Right. And those vibrations are quantized, just like the electronic energy levels are. And typically, in molecules vibrations of, of atoms relative to each other. The transitions that happen from one state to another, are in sort of the infrared part of the spectrum. Whereas electronic transitions are more in the visible and ultraviolet part of the spectrum. But you can also have these two atoms that are bound together, that they’re rotating, like, like a stick is rotating. And those rotations are also quantized. You have quantized angular momentum. And the transitions between rotational states typically correspond to, to microwave type frequencies.


Will Bachman  23:10

That’s interesting. Okay. I think I think I ended up I didn’t take go past physics 143 quantum mechanics, like intro course. Yeah. And I had statistical and thermodynamics, whatever, mechanics, but I guess it didn’t really appreciate how the molecules were also rotating. Okay. A whole new thing and quantize as well, makes sense. Okay, I want let’s, let’s get to some of your innovation type work. I’m curious. Maybe just, let’s go into a bit more nerdy kind of detail. Pick one that you’re proud of, something that you took from sort of academic article type level of knowledge to the, you know, prototype stage, you know, just just pick one that you’re proud of, and I’d love to hear, double click on that, and walk me through what the process was like?


Chris Ball  24:03

Sure. So um, well, let me talk about the X ray thing I’m working on right now. That’s kind of an interesting thing. So So the fundamental concept of how you do communications, right wireless communications. So you know, your Wi Fi or your your cellular or, you know, anything that’s, that’s broadcasting wirelessly, you have what’s called a carrier frequency. And that carrier frequency for you know, cellular is is, is in the microwave part of the spectrum. And so what you do in order to convey information is you modulate that carrier now modulation could be in amplitude modulation, like an am radio, where you’re basically changing the amplitude of the electromagnetic waves, the microwaves and you’re doing it in a in a way that you can and recover and turn that into information. You can also frequency modulate like FM radio, or you can phase modulate. And there are other things you can do but, but basically that the idea of modulating a carrier frequencies of the carrier allows you to broadcast from one point to another. And then modulation is the information that you’re putting on that carrier frequency to transmit from from one point to another. So, so traditional communications like cellular, and you know, Wi Fi, and all these things are using microwave technologies, radios use radio waves. There’s also a class of communications called optical communications where you can use lasers to communicate. So instead of a like a microwave carrier frequency, you have an optical carrier. So there’s wavelengths in the near infrared part of the spectrum, that 1550 nanometers, if you care to know that’s a common telecom wavelength. So you can do the same kind of thing with with this light, you can modulate the amplitude, you can modulate the frequency or wavelength or phase, or whatever you need to do to put information on that optical carrier. Now, light has a much shorter wavelength than radio waves, or microwaves. And what that allows you to do is you can a, you can put a lot more information on an optical carrier than you can a microwave carrier. Also, an optical beam like a laser, you can make it so that it is a very tight beam and can propagate for a very long distance in a tight beam. Whereas microwaves tend to spread out in many directions and are a lot less directional. So optical communications gives you an opportunity to, to do really high data rates and directional point to point communications. So the next step beyond that, and you know, as I look at all of this is, what happens if you were to try to do the same things with X rays. So you use X rays as your carrier, and then you modulate those x rays in some way. You know, what we’re doing in the lab, we’re just doing very simple experiments. So we’re just doing simple amplitude modulation, we’re literally turning them on and off, like Morse code. And the reason that we thought about X rays is actually an idea that, that came to us in discussions with NASA. So NASA has always had a problem of being able to communicate with spacecraft when they’re reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. There’s a period of time called blackout, when a spacecraft is entering the atmosphere, and it sets up this hot plasma. And the radio waves that they would use for for their radios to communicate, cannot penetrate that plasma. The X rays, however, can. So you can envision a situation where if you’ve got a satellite with one of these x ray transmitters and receivers on it, you can transmit your X rays at this spacecraft when it’s still in the upper part of the atmosphere, and it’s got this plasma around it, and the X rays go through the plasma, and you can communicate with that spacecraft while it’s while it’s reentering the atmosphere. So that was something that NASA has been interested in and they developed a small x ray source, a very, very small x ray source that also can be switched on and off very quickly at about. So basically, you can, you can switch it on and off in a nanosecond, so 1,000,000,000th of a second. And that’s important, because if you want to put a lot of information on your X ray carrier, you need to be able to make changes to that carrier very quickly. So if you just do simple amplitude modulation, and you can switch on and off at a nanosecond, you can get about a gigahertz of bandwidth. So you know, roughly, you know, a gigabit of information per second in round numbers, which is a lot of information. It’s it’s better than what spaceborne optical systems are currently doing. So anyway, we’re, we’re, we sort of licensed this, this technology from NASA, this this miniature X ray source, and we’re applying at at the electro science lab, we’re applying what we know from decades of of work on communication systems in the microwave and optical domains, and we’re trying to apply those same principles to to x rays. So I mentioned you know, optical technologies, you can also transmit them a very long distance. X rays have significantly smaller wavelength and optical systems do. So in principle, you can propagate X rays Much, much farther than an optical system. So now you’re starting to talk about interplanetary type distances. So if you want to set up a very high data rate system that can talk to Mars, you know, being able to do it with an X ray carrier might be advantageous over some of the current technologies.


Will Bachman  30:25

Now with, isn’t it something the case that the higher the frequency, it’s also easier to dissipate in terms of like, at least in the ocean, right, you have like a really low frequency like whales, you can hear it 20 miles away, but if it’s a high frequency, it gets more attenuated. So is that the case with maybe an outer space, it doesn’t matter. But so


Chris Ball  30:52

that’s, that’s, that’s an important point. So X rays, you cannot propagate them very far on on the ground on Earth. But in space, where you have this near vacuum condition, as we established earlier, you know, you can you don’t have that kind of attenuation of your beam, it can, it can just propagate for, for many 1000s of kilometers, without, without any attenuation, or minimal attenuation.


Will Bachman  31:21

Bring me into kind of the guts of your innovation slash development process. So you got this source from NASA? What then do you as the project lead? What are you doing? What sorts of experiments would you do or walk me through the kind of the process,


Chris Ball  31:42

so what we’re doing is basically kind of a proof of concept study, where we’re basically showing in the laboratory that you can do this. And, and, and kind of start to optimize things a little bit so that you can start to do it well, at the same time that we’re trying to prove the feasibility of the concept, we’re also starting to think about and design, you know, what would this look like if you were to put it into practice? And so our initial thoughts on putting it into practice is what happens if maybe you put it on a small satellite, kind of like this CubeSat that we built a few years ago. So you put one of these sources and a receiver on on, say, two of these cube sets, and then you launch them and have them talk to each other from long distances away from each other in a space environment? That might be a yes, where we sort of transition from proof of concept to, to maturing the technology enough that we that we’ve demonstrated its operability in, in a realistic environment, in this case, it would be a space environment. After that, hopefully, some other company would come along and say, okay, yeah, you’ve proven you can do this, you’ve proven it works in in space, you know, we’ll take over will will engineer it and turn it into a rugged, you know, piece of equipment that NASA and other people can buy and put on their spacecraft. So that’s kind of where my involvement stops is, you know, you try something out, you try it out in the relevant environment, and then give it to someone else to kind of finish it.


Will Bachman  33:22

Now, in your work, is there a lot of this? Thomas Edison, we tried 9000 Different filament materials until we found work, is there a lot of this trial and error and you have ideas? And it doesn’t work? And you have to? Yeah,


Chris Ball  33:37

there is. Yeah, yeah. Maybe, maybe not quite at the level of Thomas Edison, because we’ve got such an enormous body of, of research literature to fall back on these days, but, but I do, I’m involved in some projects, with a colleague, a professor at Ohio State who develops infrared sensitive materials, and, you know, turning those infrared sensitive materials into detectors that then go into some kind of sensor system. And in those cases, this professor you know, he’s got a good hypothesis, a good basis for figuring out how to make certain materials and make certain structures and materials and things like that, to achieve certain performance benchmarks and the, you know, how the, how the detector will work. But there’s, there’s often a very big difference between what you can predict in theory and simulations and things like that, and what actually happens in real life when you actually try to make these things and, you know, conditions are always correct, or maybe the models you’re using might have a flaw. There’s a variety of things that can go wrong. So so there’s there’s a lot of trial and error in that we’re working on a another NASA funded project for with this professor and And we’re trying to develop some infrared detectors for for space applications. And, and in that one, I think we’ve gone through 20 iterations of, of different materials, we grow them in a molecular beam epitaxy equipment, and then we characterize them and, and the ones that do well, after characterization, we kind of turn them into devices. And then once we’ve turned them into a device, you know, we do some more characterization, and, and then the ones that, you know, sort of meet all the objectives survive and become a, you know, something that we would deliver. But, you know, at this point, we’ve had many, many failures of getting these things to perform the way that we are hoping they would perform based on what we would expect from theory. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. Sometimes, it’s because the theory is not right. And sometimes it’s because we can’t actually make things as well as theory predicts.


Will Bachman  36:00

I’m curious to hear about some of these detectors that you’ve helped create. for detecting you mentioned drugs, toxic chemicals, at super low concentrations. How did those detectors work? Like what is it? What sort of physics principle are you using to detect it one part per trillion have some thoughts and or some drug or something?


Chris Ball  36:27

So, so that particular one where we developed to do really sensitive measurements, this is of gases, like formaldehyde, and it goes back to the same principles that of microwave spectroscopy that I did in graduate school. In fact, it was, this was a collaboration with my my PhD advisor, after years after I graduated, we collaborated on on this project. And, and the thing about microwave spectroscopy is, if you can do a measurement of a gas, in a in a very low pressure environment, like close to close to vacuum conditions, what you’re measuring is called a spectroscopic line. And by line, it’s really kind of like a, like a sharp sort of, you know, Gaussian distribution, right. And the width of that Gaussian distribution, if you if you haven’t at a higher and higher pressure environment, that with broadens out. And with most complex molecules, you have many 1000s of rotational lines that you can measure. And if they’re measured at a high enough pressure, these lines start to blur together, and you can can’t really tell one from another. But if you can measure them at really low pressure, those lines become really, really sharp, and they become taller. Because it’s sort of you preserve the area under the curve, and you know, all of that, but so, so we’re basically exploiting fundamental aspects of microwave spectroscopy of gases at low pressures, that allow you to a discriminate different gases from each other and uniquely identify them like a fingerprint of that particular gas of the molecules in that gas. But also, we get the really high sensitivity, because these, these lines become taller. And there’s, there’s a larger signal that we can measure. When we go to lower pressures, even though there are less molecules, we can, we can then do things like do multipass configurations where the microwave beam is passing through many 100 times, and you get an increasing amount of signal that you can measure so so we kind of base part of it on fundamental aspects of of, of the molecules and how they absorb microwave radiation. And then some of it is engineering. So that we can get as long of a path length of our of our microwaves to transmit through the gas, as long


Will Bachman  39:01

as somehow you’re taking in little sucking a little bit of the gas of just the room that the person is in. And then you must reduce the pressure on that way below atmospheric pressure. So somehow you create a little vacuum in there, but there’s some of it left. Yeah. And then that’s where you throw the microscopic the micro wave radiation through that air sample. That is now at low pressure, correct. Oh, and then you can see where it spikes with the energy on a on a microwave or where it absorbed it or something. And you’ll see lines for each type of molecule that’s in there. Yes.


Chris Ball  39:38

Yeah. So so we, when we started we this collaboration back in 2012. So I was still at Mattel and I was working with my PhD advisor at Ohio State. And we did a project that was funded by the Department of Defense to develop a what we call the mission adaptable chemical sensor and it basically did exactly what you’re saying it sucked in some air. And and then we did measurements at low pressure of the air that we sucked in and we can tell, you know, hundreds of different chemicals apart from each other in in a relatively short time. Why?


Will Bachman  40:18

Why does the Customs Border guards still use? Dogs? Is it? Are these machines that you came up with your super expensive or super unwieldy? Or are dogs better at something?


Chris Ball  40:35

Well, so So the things that a dog might be sniffing for would be like narcotics, or plosives. And those are a little different. So with so so you could, in principle, use the technology that we developed to measure the gases that emanate from these explosives, or drugs, for instance. But they’re really, really low amounts? And, and so yes, I think part of the answer is, is that what we’re doing is very expensive. The technologies that we that underlie the microwave part of our system, are actually what we would call millimeter wave, they’re hundreds of gigahertz type frequencies. And the best available technologies that we can get, that generate these kinds of frequencies cost 5060 $70,000, just for a transmitter and another $50,000 or so for a receiver. So you’re already looking at, right, there’s $100,000 instrument, and that’s just buying that, you know, just those two things. And then you have all the electronics and the pumps and everything that goes with it. So, so this is not a cheap technology. Okay, so this is out maybe in the future, these things will get less expensive, but But for right now, it’s really expensive.


Will Bachman  42:02

And so the employment prospects for the canine force are still still good. Yeah, yeah. All right. I want to turn this, I mean, I could go all day, ask you more details about this. Let’s turn to college, I’d love to hear about any courses or professors that you had at Harvard, that keep resonating with you. Yeah, so


Chris Ball  42:22

I thought about this one a bit, because I’m one of the few people who, you know, took a bunch of courses in their major and actually continued to use them on a day to day basis. But I have to say that, you know, I took a lot of math and physics and a little bit of chemistry. And, you know, all those were fine. You know, at the end of the day, I think, you know, there was nothing that distinguish any of those courses that the same things that you would take no matter where you would go to college. What I really enjoyed the courses that I enjoyed the most were all the core curriculum courses, I took every single one, I had a great time. And it was like, I was like taking classes for fun, you know. But I have to say that one course that surprises me, at least, if you had asked me before I went to Harvard, I think the most valuable course I took at Harvard was expository writing. No kidding. Now part of this is because I came from my high school was not, you know, it was a small public school. And I did not come to Harvard as prepared as the vast majority of my peers. So even though I thought I could write well, once I took x bars, I found out that I really couldn’t write well. So it was a learning experience that I needed. It was not one that I particularly enjoyed, but I desperately needed it. And the thing about it is, you know, once I went into the sciences, that were engineering, you might say that I’m doing now, the most critical thing you do is communicating your results. And, and also, because, you know, as I just alluded to, in previous answer, you need a lot of money to do what you do. So we spent a lot of time writing proposals. You know, trying to justify what we’re doing, trying to get potential funding sponsors excited about what we’re doing. And knowing how to write well, is a critical skill that I, every time I talk to a young student, graduate student, undergraduate student, I’d make a point of emphasizing how critical it is that you learn to write well, in this field, and what what really kind of hit home was my advisor, had encouraged me when I was in graduate school, my my advisor encouraged me to apply for a NASA fellowship, and I had to write a proposal for this, this fellowship, and based on you know, the skills that I had from expository writing and then you know, obviously, amplified by all of the other writing I had to do while I was at Harvard. I wrote a draft of this proposal, and I gave it to him and he read it. And he came back into the lab. And he says, This is really well written, like, he was surprised. Because most of the time that, you know, a student kind of gives them crap. And, you know, he has to help them, craft it into something better. But but with mine, I already, you know, because of the experience I had at Harvard, I actually could write, and it’s become a skill that has made me somewhat valuable in my various jobs. I ended up, I do write a lot of proposals. I’m the kind of person that people come to and say, Hey, will you read my proposal and help me make it better? I do a lot of red team reviews. And then that’s turned into, I do a lot of proposal reviews. So I’m on these panels with NASA and other funding agencies that I will help them read through proposals and make decisions and things like that. But But it all really comes back to, you know, can you write well, and, and if you can write well, it’s basically an indicator that you’re thinking clearly. And so that was maybe a surprising answer. But But I it’s, it was an easy one to answer. Because the expository writing was so fundamental to what I do, even though I don’t enjoy it, it was it was very important.


Will Bachman  46:10

What’s one or two writing tips that you took away from x bus? Well,


Chris Ball  46:17

I think going into a place like Harvard, I had this image or, you know, in my mind, that academic writing is supposed to be this sort of complex, you know, you use all of these words, and, and, and it sounds really sophisticated. But for most of the writing that I do, it really helps to write simply and clearly. And that was one thing that was, I think, sort of emphasized when I took expository writing is how do you take these complex ideas and stick them as clearly and as understandably as you can. Because if someone has to struggle to read your proposal, they’re not going to fund you, even if it’s the most amazing academic writing that you know, someone has ever made, if someone’s having to struggle their way through and, and try to figure out what you’re actually saying, You’re you’re not going to get funded. So I think being able to just be very clear and economize language, also not using passive voice, which is sometimes a challenge and getting people in an academic environment, not to use. But for proposal writing, for instance, it’s really critical. It’s it sounds much stronger to say, we will do these measurements, as opposed to saying These measurements will be done. So it’s, you know, trying to avoid passive voice trying to write simply and clearly those were, I think, two two big lessons.


Will Bachman  47:48

I love it. We will do these measurements. Were there any physics or math courses that you took? That were actually had been completely irrelevant? Or just not that helpful? I’m curious because they majored in physics.


Chris Ball  48:04

Yeah, so I, I don’t know. I think some of the math that I took, I took math 22. And that was kind of a slog for me, and it was a really theoretical way of learning what I could have learned a lot easier if I took in math 21. So I really didn’t like math 22.


Will Bachman  48:23

Course together, I think when we had that photocopy of that textbook, right? They didn’t have the textbook released yet. And they just had that photocopied version.


Chris Ball  48:37

That sounds about right.


Will Bachman  48:40

I’m still annoyed about that, because there was all these typos. And in the thing in the textbook, and not just word spelled wrong, but it’d be like e to the minus t. But yeah, but it was actually supposed to be e to the minus l. And I’d be trying to figure it doesn’t make any sense. You know, when


Chris Ball  48:57

I think about all the physics courses, and math and all of that kind of thing. Those were all fine, but I think one of the other valuable things that I did it at Harvard is as I took advantage of opportunities to get involved with research while I was an undergraduate, and specifically I worked at the at the high energy physics lab. At Harvard, I started there the summer before our junior year and then I worked during the year. I’m sorry, summer before our senior year maybe. And I worked there all through the summer or all through the academic year during our senior year and I worked there in the summer after our senior year. And that was a really valuable experience because because a what they had us had me do a lot of the time during the summer was to work. They were building a prototype muon detector system, and they needed us to help do some measurements and do some soldering and you know these things. So I got to learn a lot of skills that became very useful like soldering, electronics and soldering plumbing and Even they let us use a welder one day, got to use some of the machine shop tools and get to do some different types of measurements and things like that. So all of that was very valuable. But the other thing that it taught me is, after all of those experiences at the High Energy Physics Lab is I did not want to do high energy physics.



I learned, I


Chris Ball  50:19

didn’t really like the idea of every paper that I would publish, I would be one of about 700 authors. And, and be it just felt like you were just a cog in a very, very large wheel. And so I was that, it was a great experience, because I learned what I didn’t want to do. And so I went after opportunities where I could do more, you know, intimate experiments where it was just me and maybe one other person, you know, working on, you know, solving the mysteries of the universe.


Will Bachman  50:52

Learning what you don’t want to do is highly underrated. Via via negativa. As Nicolas seem to leave today, as Chris, this has been a lot of fun chatting with you, for listeners that want to follow up and learn more about your research or check it out. Where would you point them online?


Chris Ball  51:12

So I guess I have a few social media accounts, but I rarely ever check in on them. So the easiest way to get in touch with me is by email, my addresses be a LLC nine two, which should be a familiar So it’s Paul C 90 Emails great. Or, you know, if you hit me up on on various social platforms, I might or might not answer.


Will Bachman  51:41

Do you want to give a is there a link to your lab where people can find out about the guideline?


Chris Ball  51:46

Um, you know, if you go to, you can do a search and find me that way. Or it’s what is our I think it’s Electro Is the website for the lab, electro science, all one


Will Bachman  52:08

Yeah, and we’ll just verify the link and we’ll put it in the show notes. Sure. Chris, thank you so much for joining today.


Chris Ball  52:15

Well, thank you for having me. Well, this has been this has been really fun.