Farewell the Scientist President of India

It was with great sadness that I read the news of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalaam’s death. Dr. Kalam, a brilliant scientist, a fabulous president for India and a great man.

He was immensely popular among the people of India and hugely respected. As a scientist he rose to prominence with his successful heading of the Indian civilian space and missile programme. This programme has been a source of great pride to people: a clear indicator of the scientific and technological progress that the nation has made.

Dr. Kalam’s appointment as the President of India was like a breath of fresh air: a president who was not a politician, someone the average person could look up to. His emphasis on development and growth  reflected his forward thinking and scientific mind.

If only there were more like him. You will be missed Dr. Kalam but your legacy will live on.

By artiagrawal Posted in opinion

Status quo

The thing about the status quo in Science is that it never lasts very long. Depending on what time horizon you employ the Science we know and take as the writ of nature, changes. We discover new things that contradict or modify our understanding. It is both disquieting and exciting.

The discovery of Pluto’s mountains and relatively crater free plains with their polygonal shapes is one such. Where we thought that only large planets with active cores could show volcanic activity we are now seeing some as yet not understood mechanism that may make small icy worlds like Pluto geologically active.

Seeing those first few images of Pluto has been a revelation to scientists and amateurs alike. Imagine that sitting here about 4 billion miles away we are speculating what makes the mountains on Pluto!

What we learn may change our concept of our solar system and planet formation yet again, but each step seems filled with breathtaking excitement.

Just yesterday I saw a TV documentary discussing in scientific detail how a manned mission to Mars would operate. Perhaps when we land there (or even Jupiter or Saturn in some years!) we’ll find something that makes our world tilt yet again.

This applies of course to the very small as well as to the very large.

The discovery of the pentaquark has been a little overshadowed by Pluto’s shenanigans. But is no less cool. Will the LHC confirm the supersymmetry view of the world or do we go back to the drawing board?

To have a week like this, filled with such exciting discoveries with potential for taking our thinking in new directions, is one to savour. I just want more photos from Pluto!!

The connection between beauty and Science

Last evening I attended the most incredible lecture by Prof. Frank Wilczek from MIT. A Physics Nobel prize winner (2004), Prof. Wilczek has written a book: A Beautiful Question.

The lecture also titled, A Beautiful Question, explored the deep and fascinating connection between beauty and Science or our understanding of the world.

He asked: “Does the world embody beautiful ideas” and “Is the world a work of art”.

In exploring the answers to these questions, the tour took us through some very cool principles, not unknown to scientists and engineers. But in the context they seemed fresher and somehow their beauty became more apparent than before.

For example, symmetry. If we perform a transformation that leaves the content unchanged but changes the form. A circle might be rotated, an equation like x=y with the transformation y becomes x and x becomes y, remains unchanged in content : y=x , but changes in form. Effectively we are only changing perspective and in the new perspective the object might look different, but it’s reality is unchanged.

He showed us a slide of how colours of electromagnetic waves appear different in the relatavisitic Doppler effect. Red shifted when moving away, and blue when moving closer. This led me to ask: if the wavelenght/frequency of light is a matter of perspective, then what is the underlying content or intrinsic reality of an electromagnetic wave that doesn’t change?

He considered anamorphic art and how an image changing media is needed for this. As a parallel he considered general relativity where a metric fluid is needed for similar effect. See for example http://loudwigvanludens.weebly.com/anamorphic-works.html, something I found later. The parallels between art and science where beauty plays a part were a completely new way of expressing perhaps the loveliness many of us see in science.

There was some very persuasive examples that physics theories can be beautiful. Often theories that are beautiful may lead to deep insights with the caveat that one must always verify and not trust blindly to any theory no matter how beautiful. So as a proponent of the SUSY or super symmetry model which envisages a unification of all the forces that is the point he left us at.

I intend to read the book if only to see science from a romantic, aesthetic angle!

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Today while I was reading up articles on solar cells I came across something that touched a real chord with me:

In the September 2014 issue of Nature Photonics, Zimmermann et al. had a commentary piece titled “Erroneous efficiency reports harm organic solar cell research” on page 669.

The authors commented that mischaracterization or solar cell power conversion efficiencies and inconsistent data being published in scientific journals (in the field of solar cells) was particularly harmful for the area. The race for getting the best results and publishing them in the journals with highest impact factor, has in part led to people being less careful about incorrect measurements and poor reporting.

The danger when such articles multiply and proliferate is that the data being reported is unreliable and one doesn’t know which data/papers to trust. The progress of the field as a whole is hampered.

Having data and results that can be trusted, repeated and verified is a must for scientific research. In some cases, the methods to be used for characterization are clearly laid out and researchers can follow these, and/or conduct standardized tests/measurements to show the veracity of their results. This instills confidence in readers about the work and should positively impact the citation of the work too.

Obviously such issues are not confined to one field alone. For numerical modeling as I have said in previous posts, benchmarking results of a new technique against existing test cases/analytical solutions is a must!

The sheer number of the papers that were reporting results which overestimated performance though was quite a shock!

I think from now on I am going to be even more rigorous about my results as well as those of the papers I review/edit!

A new dimension

I am intrigued by a new development: Springer has started a new series of books called Science and Fiction. This series contains sci-fi books written by scientists and writers of hard sci-fi which contain apart from the story itself, a section about the Science in the book. That is not all, the series has books that have a critical commentary on sci-fi and its interaction with modern Science, religion etc.  The series as the publisher’s site says, looks to uncover mutual influences, prompt fruitful interaction.

It is great to see a scientific publisher see the close link and interaction that human imagination creates between sci-fi of today and the Science of tomorrow.
It will be an interesting experiment and one that I hope will be successful.

I also wonder when those from the so-called literary establishment will see the same connection and give sci-fi its rightful place in the pantheon of serious literature.

CLEO 2015: a great few days!

While the Californian weather was chillier than expected the conference and people were as warm as ever.

I spent last week at CLEO 2015 in San Jose and had a marvellous time. Ruminating on the conference these were the highlights for me:

The plenary sessions included talks by Nobel Prize winners like Shuji Nakamura who helped solve the issues with blue-green LED/laser. One plenary in particular really caught my fancy: “Light’s twist” by Miles Padgett of University of Glasgow. Some of the things he talked about : the orbital angular momentum of light having helical phase fronts which are not be confused with circularly polarised light were fascinating. The fact that unlike the linear Doppler effect, orbital angular momentum would impart the same frequency shift irrespective of the frequency of the light wave was new to me, but when you think about it makes perfect sense. Perhaps the most thought provoking idea was that it is transverse boundary conditions/limitations on the extent of the light beam that lead to the beams such as Airy and Bessel beams, and a waveguide per se is not required. I need to go away and do a lot of reading, but I am excited!

In the “Modes in Fiber” session the talks covered large mode area fiber designs, as well as fabrication, and went on to some very interesting new ideas on quantum walks in multi core fibers. Large mode area fibers, as a member of the audience pointed out is not a new born field and there are several designs out there. So what makes a design worthy of attention? I think one of the authors answered this very well in his presentation, SM2L.2, when Deepak Jain spoke of the three factors that are key:

  • the metric used to decide what effective single moded operation
  • loss of the fundamental mode
  • the effective radius or area at which bend loss becomes large

This discussion particularly interested me because it is this sort of perspective setting that is so important for good research. At times one can get lost in the virtual forest of journal and conference papers each of which announce a slightly (or hugely) better performance. Yet what is the process for determining which design is really best and will perhaps become the industry standard? This is where conferences like CLEO that bring members of the community together can help find the answers or set people on the path!

Undoubtedly the most exciting talk of the session was SM2L.4 by Peter Mosley from Bath. He showed some exciting simulation and experimental results for multicore fibers, whose propagation constant differences were reconstructed by a Markov chain Monte Carlo simulation, a statistical approach. The striking thing was the difference between the classical behavior one might see (when a particle moves through an array with equal probability of moving left or right) and the non-classical behavior they demonstrated for a photon between coupled.

To me the highlight of Tuesday was the Women in Photonics Lunch that had two very high profile speakers: Prof. Michal Lipson of Cornell University and Dr. Hong Liu, principle engineer at Google Technical Infrastructure. These ladies gave very frank and honest insights into their career paths, the challenges they have faced specific to them being female and their advice for women in general.

When Michal said that people at times assume she works for Alex Gaeta, her husband and also a professor at Cornell, but never the other way round, it produced a wave of a laughter and nods of recognition at what so many women face: being talked over at meetings, being mistaken for the secretary etc. The sub-text or unspoken messages that women are given, of their careers being secondary to their male partner’s or colleagues were all realities that many present in the room could empathise with and perhaps you can too as you read it.

Their advice which works for both women and men contained some real nuggets. For example, “don’t put yourself down because the people around you do that to you”. This action of not internalizing the negative messages from those around us sounds very simple but can be very profound. They also advised everyone to set a high personal standard for oneself. Achieving to a high standard then means we feel more confident and feel we belong and deserve the success that we will hopefully achieve!

I cant end the post without talking a little bit about the great talk by Ayman Abouraddy from CREOL, Florida, who gave an invited talk Wednesday morning. He discussed in a very simple and engaging manner the challenges with making multimaterial chalcogenide fibers. He then went on to explain how using polymers in the process his group had overcome these challenges to fabricate  large index difference, small diameter, robust fibers with low bend loss. It wasn’t that the Science being explained was necessarily completely new to me, but a good review of the field coupled with very accessible explanations of the challenges and their solutions was valuable. A 30 minute talk allowed me to walk away feeling I have a good handle on the latest on the field of mid IR fibers. So time well spent!

Now that I am back in London, I am hitting the papers hard and hope to use my time at CLEO well, and planning for next year’s CLEO.

Conferencing and making conferences

Last month I breathed a huge sigh of relief, gratitude and immense pride after the successful completion of OWTNM 2015. The OWTNM 2015 was the 23rd Optical Wave and Waveguide Theory and Numerical Modeling Workshop. Here is a video from the conference: https://www.dropbox.com/s/j7aqcnst1q536zt/City_OWTNM_edit01.mp4?dl=0

While this was my first experience of making a conference happen, I learned so much, I am off now to CLEO to teach a short course on Finite Element method. I am so very glad that I will be mostly attending and not responsible for more than my short course and after that my own person!

I wanted however to share some of my learnings from OWTNM here.

For those of you organising (or thinking of) their first conference these tips might come in handy!

1. Dates: make sure you get the dates that don’t clash with another premier event of the same nature. That way you don’t compete with other conferences.

2. Venue: a city that has strong tourism appeal, easy flight connections and travel ease will invariable attract more people. Though big cities can be expensive, they are easier to get to, find hotels of all budgets and there are things for people to do in the leisure hours they have. Apart from choosing the city, the actual venue should be easy to reach by public  transport and preferably not in the wilderness. Disabled access, enough toilets, some social space for delegates to sit and relax, wi-fi access make things pleasant.

3. People: perhaps the most important thing of all! You will need the right people for each task. For local committee and reviewers you may need senior academics. Some of these will only review papers, some will only give you contacts (with distinguished speakers you want to invite for example).They may not have time to do the running around, so be realistic in your expectations of them.

You will need people to do the nitty gritty work; making the conference programme, book of abstracts etc. These have to be people who you can rely on to do a good job on time. they will tend not to be super senior.

Advisors: again probably senior people who have organised several conferences and from their experience can help you a lot with timely and useful advice. the previous year’s organisers are good potential advisors too. Someone who had organised an event in your institution is good to speak with aswell: they know how to deal with the challenges specific to your institution.

The heavylifters: no (not counting the very expensive and professionally managed, like CLOE) conference is possible with out the sincere and dedicated work from an army of student volunteers. These young people, mostly post-grads, PhD students, do a lot of the running around. They can come up with the most creative ideas, solutions to problems and exciting inputs. Remember though that they are not experienced in this so can make mistakes. Be prepared to supervise and also be calm and listen!

The administrative staff! you will need to work with finance, catering, IT, security and such services. All these individuals will have an impact on the conference but for most it is not their primary concern. So you must be sensible in dealing with colleagues from these services: make sure you communicate clearly, ask for things in advance and remind them as needed.

4. Communication: a good website is a must for a successful conference. Getting people to learn about the conference, giving them information about paper submission, acceptance, registration, visas, accommodation, venue etc… all this determines how many people attend and how much they enjoy the event. Make sure your website is updated constantly, and emails are answered promptly. An easy to navigate, attractive site is always better than an eyesore!

Communication is important also within the team . You need to make sure people know what is expected of them. That you know what they expect from you! Remember to thank people and acknowledge their efforts, their contributions.

5. Finance and sponsors: you need to start with this almost as soon as you know you will host the event. Ask previous organisers for sponsors who gave support. Talk to all the companies in the field, professional bodies, publishers. Call people! Sometimes you will have to call them again and again. It is harder to say no to someone verbally than in an impersonal email. So call! You will need conference information to sell the event to them: Highlights from the previous year, and what you expect will happen this year, the benefit to the company. The website is very handy for this. That is why keeping it updated is an enormous help in attracting sponsors.

6. Flexibility and planning : somethings will go wrong despite your best efforts. Try and keep some slack in the plans you make. Above all you need to stay calm, rational and informed to make the best decisions at a time of crisis. Make sure you have a list of tasks that need to be completed, and by when, what their priority is. This master plan should be updated regularly and will help you stay on track.

Delegate: don’t try and do every thing yourself. You have picked a team that you trust, now show confidence in them!

For now that is all I can think if! Don’t hesitate to send in your comments and thoughts.

This is part of the wonderful team of students who made OWTNM  2015 possible.DSC03777

PhD studentships available!

The School has announced a few PhD studentships and I am looking for some good students whose application I would be happy to support. Please contact me if interested. Some details are given below:

School is inviting applications for 6 full-time, three-year doctoral studentships for 2015/16 entry. Three of the studentships are funded by The George Daniels’ Educational Trust ; the other three are funded by the School.
The six studentships will be split equally across Computer Science (2 studentships), Mathematics (2 studentships), and Engineering (2 studentships).

What is offered
A doctoral studentship provides:
• An annual bursary (£16,000 in 2015/16);
• A full tuition fee waiver for UK and EU students. Applications are welcome from overseas applicants but the difference between overseas and UK fee must be covered by the applicant or by the supervisor/Research Centre (with prior agreement)

Successful applicants will be expected to provide 3 hours per week support for teaching in the School. Continuation of the studentship after the first year is subject to confirmation of satisfactory progress.

Eligibility
Applications are sought from exceptional UK, EU and international graduates and will be awarded on the basis of outstanding academic achievement and the potential to produce cutting edge-research.
• Applicants must hold at least a 2.1 honours degree or merit level Masters degree in a relevant subject (or international equivalent)
• Applicants whose first language is not English must have achieved at least 6.5 in IELTS or a recognised equivalent
• Applicants must not be currently registered as a doctoral student at City University London or any other academic institution

How to apply
Application deadline: 25th May 2015.
Prospective applicants are strongly advised to discuss their application in advance with a potential supervisor in the School in order to determine whether they can offer supervision in their chosen research area.

Applications must consist of the following:
• A completed Research Degree application form
• A 3 page research proposal. This should include (a) your research question(s), (b) background literature and motivation for the research and (c) methodology/work plan.
• Proof of academic qualifications, i.e. grade transcripts from your previous degree(s)
• Proof of English language proficiency if you do not speak English as your first language
• Two confidential references (one of which must be an academic reference)

The above documents should be compiled into a single document and submitted to pgr.smcse.enquire@city.ac.uk by the 25th May 2015.

Selection Process.

1. Once all the applications are collected, Computer Science, Mathematics and Engineering should short list 4 applicants each.
2. The shortlisting panel for all areas will be led by: Computer Science: Prof Jo Wood; Mathematics: Prof Andreas Fring; Engineering: Prof Andreas Kappos
3. STRs should liaise with the above to assist them in the process
4. There will be a School panel to finalise the selection of PhD students on Wed 3rd of June 2015.

By artiagrawal Posted in General

Leadership lessons from VCs

Many of us dream of going right to the top: leading our institutions. Each year we see hundreds of students graduate and their dreams are as varied as they are. The kind organisations they join and which some of them will lead fit a very wide spectrum.

For academics who stay in the world of research and teaching the spectrum is narrower though not as one dimensional as some might think. There is need in this world too for excellent leadership, vision and a little bit of magic.

Firstly in my view universities are not businesses and their stakeholders more varied than any business: students, staff, research councils, charities, companies who commission projects, and most importantly society at large. We may be able to measure citation rates of papers, or construct impact studies of some of our research, even look at average earnings of our graduates. But there is no real measure to what universities contribute to the discourse of a society.

Yet when a university Vice Chancellor (VCs) is appointed he/she has to answer not only to the metrics and un-measurables from above, but also the very business like numbers of operating costs, profit, surpluses, and so on.

More and more VCs are like business leaders because the pressures imposed by governments to make universities more financially self-sufficient, force universities to behave like businesses (and not universities).

Is that good or bad?

Hard to say. But certainly there are some very game individuals who are doing their best running their unis. A very interesting article in Times Higher Education gives some lessons from 5 VCs.

My favourite tips from these were:

  1. When implementing strategy: understand how the institution works: politics and psychology of the organisation
  2. When going from a place to a new one as VC/leader, learn about it. Talk to as many people from as wide a range as possible
  3. Put the right people in right place
  4. Think on how to communicate decisions as much as decisions themselves

Now all I have to do is get a position as a VC and I can start implementing these on the grand scale. Till then perhaps in my smaller world trying out these things may help develop the leader in me!