Life & Culture

Scientist who wires the world

In his latest Jewniversity column David Edmonds profiles Professor Polina Bayvel, who develops the technology that brings you the JC online - and much more


Every time you Zoom, stream a film from Netflix, scroll through Wikipedia, type a Google search or upload a photo of your kitten to Facebook, you have reason to be grateful to Polina Bayvel.

Professor Bayvel has devoted her life to making our optical communications system both faster and cheaper. It’s easy to forget how rapidly broadband has evolved. When the technique for guiding light energy along optical conductors was first proposed, in 1966, the British company involved boasted of its potential. They thought that, with time, it might be possible to transmit one gigabit of information per second. Many regarded these ambitions as hubristic. A gigabit has nine zeros. But today we can transmit 200 terabits; a terabit has 12 zeros. If you can’t get your head around that, I can aid you with the technical term — it’s known as “a heck of a lot”.

In response to the technical breakthroughs, there are now millions of miles of optical fibre cables both under the sea and below our feet on land. They’re the backbone of the entire digital communications infrastructure.

The key challenge in sending information through optical fibres is how to avoid the loss of light, or the data becoming corrupted, during transmission. Optical fibres are tiny rods of glass or plastic, very long, and about the width of a human hair. Information is transmitted as follows. First it’s turned into light pulses, then it’s sent along the fibre, bouncing off the tube as it travels. The further the light journeys, the more likely things are to go wrong. Polina Bayvel’s lab researches the whole infrastructure involved in the process — not just the cables, but discovering, for example, that you could put multiple wavelengths down a single fibre, rather than just one. Her team also investigates how best to use amplifiers, to give light pulses a kick up the backside whenever there’s a danger of their becoming too weak to go on. A puzzle they want to crack in the future is how to make the whole system more “intelligent” so that it can predict and respond to periodic bouts of high demand in different places.

When Professor Bayvel established the lab in 1994 it became the first university lab in the UK, and one of the very few in the world, dedicated to the study of optical communications systems. She has about 25 researchers working with her; the lab itself is not much bigger than a large lounge, but it’s well and expensively kitted out. It can be used to transmit data the equivalent of half-way round the world. This year, in what she calls their “lockdown project”, her group broke an information speed record. If you had this available at home, you could download The Crown along with the rest of the Netflix library in two minutes.

Polina Bayvel was born in Kharkiv (or Kharkov as it was known then), Ukraine’s second largest city. Her father, a charismatic polymath, taught physics at university; her mother worked on the technical side of the garment industry. What made them highly unusual was that, throughout the Soviet period, they continued, in a clandestine way, to practise Orthodox Judaism — in a country in which this was banned.

In 1977 they moved permanently to a city in which they’d already spent much time, Leningrad. And in 1978 they emigrated to the UK. Most Jewish emigrants from the USSR went either to the US or Israel. But Polina’s father had corresponded with the late Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits following a trip he’d undertaken to Russia. Back home, the Chief Rabbi lobbied the Foreign Secretary, David Owen, who personally signed off on their visas. In 2018, 40 years after arriving in Britain, she wrote to thank him, and he responded by taking her for lunch at the House of Lords. She says she’s grateful to the Jewish community for helping them settle into the UK.

In the UK, she attended Hasmonean High School, where she says she had inspiring teachers, and then studied electrical engineering at UCL followed by a PhD. For a few years she worked in the private sector, before returning to academia. Occasionally she’s approached by companies who try to lure her back into the private sector by waving fat cheques, but she likes the freedom university life affords to research whatever she wants.

Her outstanding work has been recognised with a CBE and election to the Royal Society, and she’s featured on the BBC’s Life Scientific. Her family left the USSR to be openly Jewish, so not surprisingly her religion and Jewish identity remain central to her life. She insists there’s no conflict between her science and her religion: one is about evidence and proof, she says, the other about faith.

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