The business of being busy

Very often when you try and arrange a meeting with an academic colleague the first available date seems to be more than a month in the future. Everyone is super busy, buried under mountains of marking, preparing for lectures, admin duties, writing grant proposals, vivas, other meetings and rushing about between conferences. Summer seems to offer no letup even though teaching is mercifully in a hiatus for some time. All the things one cannot manage during term get shoved into the summer. As though one can binge research in 2-3 months what one should be doing over an entire twelvemonth!
But such is academic life.

I don’t think this is great. I think we should have time to think and ponder, for our creativity to really flow. For both our research and our teaching.

There is a deeper issue here: Do we bear the badge of busyness with too much pride?

It seems to me that for some people the dashing about while juggling the many things they have to do gives them a sense of importance, perhaps a self affirmation. If we don’t have something to do every minute of the day we feel at a lose end. We need to radiate busyness with matters of global importance or we feel insecure about our place in the order of things.

But is it really cool that we never have enough time for leisure? That we can never slow down, or have a few minutes each day to think or just let our minds be blessedly blank of the endless to-do list?

I find myself doing this at times and I want to stop myself going too far down that road. I want to have time to smell the flowers as much as I want to solve the next global crisis.

Publishing a paper with simulation results

Dealing with tons of papers on simulation (or containing some simulation) results, as reviewer, editor (of IEEE Photonics Journal and JEOS RP) and conference chair of OWTNM 2015, I thought I’d point out a few (hopefully) useful things that I’ve picked up.

Some pointers are general and applicable to any paper, and others more specific to simulation related papers.


– when suggesting potential reviewers for your manuscript, make sure the email addresses of these people are correctly entered! I cannot tell you how frustrating it is as an editor to find this information is inaccurate and preferred reviewers cannot be contacted.

– do not suggest reviewers from your own research group or institution, to avoid a potential conflict of interest

– make sure your own inbox doesn’t bounce back emails from the editor!

Simulation related:

– for papers that present new algorithms and methods, it is imperative to convince  reviewers that the method works. The best way to do so is to show test results for the method against problems for which analytical or well known solutions exist. The more standardised and well accepted the test problem, the more credibility it lends your method. Benchmarking against results from other well cited results can also be quite helpful. Do this before applying the method to a new structure and presenting those results.

–  show tolerance and stability behaviour: since the method will have a number of parameters it is a good idea to show how error/accuracy varies as a function of these variables. The stability behaviour of the method against parameters can indicate the robustness of the method.

– if there are limitations to the method, it may be worth discussing these sometimes. It can help to define the applicability of the method.

These all constitute useful information for reviewers and editors when making decision to accept a manuscript: how sound the manuscript is technically, how useful will it be to readers, how widely it will be read and how well presented it is?

Benchmarking: test drive your code/software

Hello all!

It has been a long time since I blogged. Been extremely busy with the organisation of the OWTNM 2015. The paper submission just closed. The good news is that this year OWTNM will feature a training session with Lumerical (free to attendees) and also a free Women in Optics workshop (with lunch). The technical papers and sessions will be up on the site soon. Do attend if you can!

But now on to a blogpost! Why benchmarking and what is it?

Would you buy a car without a thorough test drive?

If the answer is no, then read on…

First the why benchmark: to make best use of your simulation software/code.
Benchmarking allows you to:
– generate results that are reliable and repeatable, giving referees (and you) confidence in these. When you include some benchmark results in a paper, for example, reviewers are more likely to trust your findings. Also other authors when they want to use the same approach (and perhaps cite your work) can repeat your work and obtain the same results, so they know they are on the right track in using the technique/structure etc. This enables your results to be used and cited more widely.

learn the sweet spots and limits of the software/code: you would not expect a car to fly like an aeroplane or a bicycle to be ridden as fast as a bullet train. Similarly the software/code will have an optimal performance for the input parameters. It is worth knowing first of all for which problems the software can be used (time domain problems for example need a method belonging to either FDTD/FETD/Time BPM class, and a simple mode solver may not work). Then having identified the nature of the problem and the appropriate method/software for it, comes the choice of values of parameters.

The idea is to identify the error dependence of the results on the parameter values. How large a time step, or propagation step can you take and the error to be acceptable? What index difference (in the structure) can the software handle accurately? How many grid/mesh points are needed to represent the structure with sufficient accuracy and still be fast enough?

Benchmarking helps learn:
Can you trust the results you get (for a new as yet not well understood structure)? Are these parameter values too large/small/just right? What sort of error should you expect?

These are the sort of questions worth answering before you embark on simulating a new structure. Which brings me to the what is benchmarking and how to do it…

Benchmarking in my opinion is simply matching results with your software/code for a known problem to test its accuracy.

How should you benchmark:
– As a rule of thumb, pick up a problem/structure for which results are known well, if possible analytical solutions are available. (you would ofcourse have made sure the problem you are trying to solve and the solver/software you are using for the purpose are right for each other!)
– Then try and repeat the well known results for the parameter values published. Do these match well?
– If the first two steps make you happy then this third is worth implementing. Now fix all input parameters except one. Change values of this parameter and plot the results as a function of the parameter, tabulate them. This should show you the error as function of the parameter. Do this for all the key parameters.
This step is critical in identifying what parameter values you can use and still get results that you can trust.

Remember, with fabrication, tolerances are important. So experimental colleagues, reviewers, grant funders, manufacturers all want to know what happens to the performance if the parameter value changes by say 5%.
You need to know the answer to that one, and also to know how much error is present. If the error in the simulations is 5% then the tolerance has to be greater than 5% for the results to be useful!

Benchmarking can seem like a laborious and boring task. But it is very much worth it. Do it properly once and then you can really use the software to the max!

An early Christmas present

The past month has been very hectic and filled with submissions, marking, student presentations etc…

Now that Christmas is almost upon us I wanted to relfect on the year a little, given the few minutes of breathing space!

Perhaps the biggest achievement or exciting journey that has begun for me is the launch of the Women in Photonics (WiP) initiative of the IEEE Photonics Society. As the Asosciate Vice President of WiP my job is to get more women into and onwards in Photonics. This may not directly have anything to do with my career, but I relish the opportunity to contribute something positive and help make those changes happen that I believe are needed. It is the first step in a long process which will I am sure throw up challenges and frustrations. But along the way I hope there will be real progress and when I am 65 I can look back on this with some satisfaction and say “I was part of this change”.

From a technical point of view satisfaction has come in working with an experimental group. We simulated the optical properties of solar cells, whilst my collaborators fabricated and characterized these. There is so much joy in watching the numerical results closely explain the measured data! Our joint paper is now published and available.

What lies ahead:
The biggest thing on the horizon is the OWTNM 2015 which I am chairing and organising. Getting to grips with making an international conference happen is huge: somethings are incredibly simple and common sense (no matter how tough it all looks) and others are fiddly and cumbersome (no matter how easy they may appear). It is only after the event is over will I know how it really went.

There are ofcourse many other things to look forward to. I will be giving a short course at CLEO 2015 again. There is the collaborative work with Aston university on spiral waveguides in Lithium Niobate.
And much more..

I hope you all have a lovely Christmas and fabulous 2015.

Space or bust

I have been in two minds (or several) about writing this blogpost. Eventually I decided to post it and let you be the judge of how pompous it is (I am) and how very unqualified to talk about such matters. Yet my head would not leave me alone till I did it. So here goes!

We are currently caught up in the crest of a wave of space exploration projects: The Mangalyaan mission to Mars, the Mars orbiter, the Jade Rabbit mission to the moon, the Rosetta mission and now the announcements of crowdfunding a lunar mission (led by the UK) and India’s planned 2nd Mars mission in 2018. This is not counting the endeavours such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.

Space projects take years from conception to funding to execution and (or in failing to) achieving their goals. So if we see several missions reaching fruition now, this wave of results began really several years earlier.
This cyclical nature of space exploration is quite typical: public interest in space waxes and wanes with competing issues: economic downturns, political unrest, wars, natural disasters, and just what engages the public mood of that generation. Competition between countries to prove their technological prowess also contributes to the space race. The players were usually USA, Russia and Europe. Today the club and race has expanded with India and China adding their own lanes in the sprint. The entry of Joe Public without affiliation to any country is also looking likelier with Citizen science, crowdfunding and space companies. All in all the threshold to space is now more crowded than ever before.

Does that mean we will ever really go to space?

Yesterday in the BBC programme on Science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson, the author of the Mars trilogy said that he didn’t think we would ever really go far into space (I paraphrase), that space exploration would be restricted to our backyard, the solar system.

I disagree with that.

For several reasons, the first being, that if we are to be the poor urchins just standing outside with our noses pressed to the shopwindow of the universe I would rather die now. I want to, or need to, believe that at some point my species will be there, part of the grand theatre of space, part of its fabric, learning its secrets. If I cannot go myself, at least I want to believe that my descendants will. Someday.

Other more sane reasons include:
Where we will go and how far really is a question of the time horizon we choose. For the next 50 or even 150 years perhaps we will not venture beyond Mars. But who is to say what we can achieve and reach in 5000 years?

There are several pressures building (apart from the curiosity factor) that I think will at some point push us outward and into space: population, pollution, wars, natural disasters. To survive we will go where we need to. As human beings have done in migrating all over the planet. Only our scale will grow with our need, our technology and our imagination.

If we restrict ourselves to imagining our race/species as unchanging and try to envisage a future in deep space with human beings exactly as they are, that may well be improbable. Venturing into space, there could be genetic mutations due to exposure to radiation leading to a different species of humanoids that survive space. Living on alien works with different gravity, bio-chemistry, atmosphere, and organisms mean our body would over millennia adapt and change. Perhaps one day we will be mating with other species and the resulting human-others will be our distant descendants who see a star-rise thousands of light years away.

Then there is the question that really ought to be tickling us: if as theorized by Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that life came to earth from space, why could not those meteors/comets that carried life to earth have carried it to other planets? Perhaps there are human like species on other earth like planets already?

This leads me to a rather singular question: who is this “we”?

When we speak about human beings going to space do we mean (a sample) from some of us alive right now? Does it mean our direct descendants born here on Earth? Could it mean life that is identical to us but from a different yet Earth-like planet? In space, would we hold onto our identity as defined by our country of origin/ethnicity/religion/caste/class? Or is it a race identity (since genetically we are not identical, merely very similar)?

What would we be like in space?

Would we go as previous colonizers and explorers have (on Earth): with the entitlement that all nature is here to serve us the masters? Or would we see space as something that we are part of and that is part of us? Could we integrate into the much larger world without trying to enslave or dominate it? Can we be part of something larger without breaking it? Can our sense of self endure and hold whilst also evolving in the face of such huge changes?

Could we co-habit space with others?If we came across other sentient species, would we be able to live with them in peace? Or would we feel the need to yoke them to fulfilling our needs? What if they were technologically our equals/superiors? Would it all play out like a bad Hollywood film scenario? Can we communicate with intelligence that is completely different from our own? Would other species welcome us? Some of these questions have been considered by celebrated authors like Ray Bradbury and John Wyndham.

I don’t suppose the answers are easily to be had. The only thing to hold onto is our desire and hope: space or bust!

Crest of a wave!

Today the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Rosetta mission finally makes contact with the comet (67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko ) it has been chasing for some time since it was launched in 2004.

The Rosetta mission separated the Philae lander this morning about 8.35am GMT. So my breakfast was eaten while breathlessly scouring the telly, looking at all the news channels to see any live coverage of the mission. What a way to being the day! I wouldnt mind such fare for breakfast viewing everyday…

The lander is expected to reach the comet surface about 1600 GMT, give or take an hour and then will heopfully relay signals to the spacecraft.

Why is Rosetta so exciting?

Oh, the many reasons!! But here are the headline reasons:
– this is the first time a comet lander will land near the comet nucleus
– the lander will examine the comet for complex organic molecules! Did life come to earth riding on comet?- the mission will ride close to Jupiter’s orbit

This mission may well be one of the most critical in our journey to finding out about the origin of life in the universe!

The excitement is almsot unbearable and the wait is too much.

My only quibble: the TV keeps on harping on about tennis matches and fines on banks… who cares when we could be seeing the building blocks of life on a comet!

Wow: first female director of CERN!

I dont know how many girls (or boys) grow up thinking that one day they could lead an organisation like CERN. Dr. Fabiola Gianotti has been chosen to lead CERN from January 2016 for 5 years as the Director General.

This is absolutely fabulous and I could not not blog about it!

You can read more here and here.

All set and ready to go!

Today or shall I say tonight is the big night!

A high profile launch of the Women in Photonics (WiP) initiative of the IEEE Photonics Society at the IEEE Photonics Conference in San Diego. As the AVP of the Women in Photonics, I will be a co-host of the reception, standing next to the society president, Dalma Novak, and giving a small presentation.

This is a big deal for many reasons:
– reception will have 100+ people
– getting people on board for WiP, and that includes men
– creating the strategy for WiP that will really make a difference
– implementing this strategy with the help of the many volunteers we are looking for

This initiative is very close to my heart, because it gives me the platform to do something about improving the lot of women in STEM as opposed to simply thinking and talking about it.

Each one of us man or woman, from a developing or developed country, have been lucky recipients of the work done by our predecessors in the opportunities and freedom we have. In our small way it is important we contribute to a legacy for our successors as well!

Another POV change!

Some of you may have wondered why I havent posted for a few days now. Well, its been a very busy and exciting few days that have kept me chained to my desk but away from the blog!

There is the usual excitement and busy period that comes with start of term and new students.

The biggest excitment (though it has been in the works for a few months) is OWTNM 2015.

In April I had attended the ECIO-OWTNM 2014 in Nice and while there I offered to host the next OWTNM in London. OWTNM stands for the Optical Wave and Waveguide Theory and Numerical Modelling workshop. The primary focus is on modelling methods for Photonics and results obtained with these. So bang my research area.

I wanted to organise this for a bunch of reasons:

– get the experience of hosting such a big event (though it is not by any means a huge conference)
– career development
– have some say in how sessions would run and which speakers to invite!
– be on the other side of a conference

Being on the editorial team of a couple of journals has changed my perception of academic publishing so much. I wondered how organising a conference would impact my view of conferences.

There is so much to do:
– get a bank account set up
– get a suitable venue
– fix dates that dont clash with other big events
– manage to get invited speaker who people want to hear, provided these elite speakers are free!
– raise funds, one of the hardest parts
– get a website set up
– publicising the conference

These are just the big headline items, and the major ones so far. The details (catering, review of submitted papers, banners, badges, bags, gala dinner, internet at the venue, who will open the conference…) that will need looking after will be a whole new level of effort.

Then there is dealing with the fear. What if we dont break even financially? What if the invited speakers back out? What if enough people dont submit papers? What if people hate it and hate me? Oh God!

Why did I think this was a good idea? If I read the reasons above I can see why. But sometimes it still feels like I am trying to ride a tiger (one that is sleeping for the moment).

The ride is scary and thrilling in equal parts. I will report back at regular intervals about the experience.

Meanwhile, I invite you to attend OWTNM 2015!