At the dawn of the millennium, something beautiful and weird emerged from the era’s cultural detritus and made it onto the then-burgeoning internet: Britney Spears’ Guide to Semiconductor Physics, found via the unassuming URL britneyspears.ac.
The site featured pages of information on everything from the basics of how semiconductors work—for example, how materials like silicon can be “doped” with impurities to carry an electrical current, and are the basis of modern electronics—to entries on the “finite barrier quantum well” and “photolithography”.
All of it is allegedly written by Britney Spears, whom the site casts as being a physics genius as well as a pop star. But in reality, the site was was created by a young theoretical physics post-grad at the University of Essex named Carl Hepburn.
Hepburn thinks the site went up in 1999, though Archive.org's earliest cache is from 2000. In any case, it wasn’t until 2001 that it went viral and caused a sensation in the media. Even Spears’ record label gave the site their blessing. Fifteen years later, the guide is still up, vintage glamour shots of Spears and all.
"Unless I have some brilliant idea in physics or do something else that becomes as well known it will probably be the only thing that people remember about me"
I wondered what Hepburn could be up to all these years after his internet 1.0 creation went viral, so I sent an email to the address listed on the site (hotmail, natch). To my surprise, Hepburn emailed me back.
Hepburn isn’t a physicist anymore—he says he “ran out of time and money”—and he has no clue about who’s famous these days. Instead, he’s a web developer with a three-year-old son, who’s following in his dad’s footsteps. Hepburn tells me that his son already knows the periodic table of elements.
“I have no regrets about setting up the site,” Hepburn wrote me in an email. “Unless I have some brilliant idea in physics or do something else that becomes as well known it will probably be the only thing that people remember about me.”
Besides shoring up his legacy, Hepburn says he’s paid to keep the site live for all these years in the hopes that people will still learn something from it. It’s also often mentioned in job interviews, he told me, which isn’t surprising for a web developer, and probably explains why the site contains a link to his CV. But it really does seem like Hepburn cares more about education than he does job prospects; he runs another site, Splung (gross), that contains reams of esoteric explanations of topics in physics, written by Hepburn, but without all the Britney pics.
Hepburn (middle) graduating with his master's degree, along with two colleagues. Image: Britney Spears' guide to Semiconductor Physics
Today, Britney Spears’ Guide to Semiconductor physics exists as a living relic from a time gone by, and Hepburn says it should stay that way. He’s not going to try and repeat his earlier success any time soon.
“I am such an old fogey that I have no idea who is famous today and in 2015, there are so many websites and such a lot of content written on Facebook that I think it would just get lost,” Hepburn wrote, adding that if you want to make educational content these days, YouTube is probably a safer bet.
“There is a lot more luck than judgment than people realise when something goes viral.”