The Diary of an academic nomad: culture,vulture!

Today I want to write about culture and its massive influence on our lives.

In my new adventure and time in Sydney the adjustments and changes have been many and in so many diverse areas too. Yet the thing we dont always talk about is how living in a culturally different environment can be like.

Culture is a big word and embraces so much. Our work place can be an entire world with it’s own culture and understanding how the work culture differs in the new organisation is vital. The rules of behaviour are unwritten and yet somehow as a new person one has to through observation and trial and error learn quickly. It is key to be happy to figure out what is acceptable and what is not, what works and what does not. It can be simple things like some places replying heavily on email exchanges while another where face to face is the prefered mode of communication. In some organisations autonomy is encouraged while in others team work is more important. Some work cultures offer a supportive environment and others leave you to find our own feet. So as a newbie you blunder along trying to understand these unsaid things.

Beyond organisations is the complex culture of a country/city! The language and cultural references… “arvo”, “bevvie” as opposed to afternoon and drink! Are the people as a whole more laid back, or do they never use their annual leave? Should one keep up with the sports news to have things in common with colleagues, friends or should one be trying to buy tickets to the opera? How do you dress- what is considered formal and what is dressed down?

In between these microcosms are the delicious layers of complexity added by individual personalities! Can a certain behaviour be attributed to the work culture or the culture at large, or is it just how this person is?

Navigating these tricky waters is draining and at times surprising- it throws up the preconveived notions we might hold in our head about people and their backgrounds! In every new culture I’ve moved in- I feel I’ve grown as a person and redefined my own sense of self. Yet this process is bittersweet-learning, making new friends and at times making mistakes.

What do you think?


Optics and exhibitions

Recently I visited two exhibitions and both have completely blown my mind.

The first was the Cosmonauts exhibition at the science museum in London  and the second was the Phillips collection where I  had the opportunity to see the Paul Allen


Poster from the Cosmonauts exhibition

collection in  Washington DC.

So about Cosmonauts first:  the exhibition tells the story of Soviet Russia’s foray into space and how it put the first man-made objects, landed them on other planets and launch the first man into space.  Imagine seeing the space suit worn by Valentina Tereshkova the first woman in space!  It was a stunning experience as well as a very moving one.

There was a letter there from a young girl who asked the soviet space agency to send her to the moon because she had the appropriate fur coat and boots!  She said that she was willing to die but would they please please send her!

This passion for space and exploration is not new and the exhibition showed the excitement generated the world over when  when the Gagarin went into space.


Poster from the Cosmonauts exhibition

What does this have to do with optics?

Well if you’ve seen the new photographs from Pluto they completely break apart the theories that we have about planets.  How can a planet that is not in geologically active have mountains?

The roll that optics has to play in all this is  is opening our eyes to new wavelengths-  enabling us to observe the world in frequencies that we haven’t been able to do so before  as effectively as we can now.  With the new sources and detectors in the IR and far IR we should be able to detect signs of life potentially!

So with optics to the stars then!  And this time we can possibly travel there too.

And now about the Paul Allen collection: at the OSA  winter leadership meeting there was a reception held at the Phillips collection,  and I’ll gallery in D.C.  The Paul Allen collection on landscape painting with charted how landscape painting has changed over 400 hundred years was being shown.

The sumptuous  collection of Monets, Manets, Signacs, even a Matisse and Kandinsky, a surreal Magritte were simply fabulous! Unfortunately i could not take photographs of these and post them here.

Optics took me to DC and it was optics that give me the opportunity to see these masterpieces.  Not to mention that there was the visual optical process of actually looking at these paintings.

Overall I would say optics is a win-win! I had a fabulous time and I hope you can  experience what Art other sciences bring in conjunction with optics in to our lives.


Sunday at IEEE Photonics Conference

As I arrived slightly jet lagged and tired for the IEEE Photonics Conference (IPC) I was also a little disgruntled that my favourite shoe shop was far from the hotel.

Not a good start I thought.

But all the cobwebs and irritation was blown away.

The Photonics Pro Training session was mindblowing!

The first talk by Elizabeth Lions on leadership made me ask my self what leadership meant to me, why I or anyone wants to be a leader and how to go about leading. The second talk by Prof. Ben Eggleton carried forward with the theme of leadership and he talked about his career path, the challenges he faced and how he achieved his success.

The IEEE Photonics Society plans to have more such sessions on career development in future conferences to help students and young professionals in the field to gain skills they need to succeed. Judging by the number of people in the room and the age distribution, it seems it is not only young people who want such discussions!

This session was followed by a Women in Photonics panel, where 5 women from diverse research areas, form industry and academia, talked about their career paths. They answered questions from the audience and in a very frank and honest manner gave their take on how to be successful and overcome the challenges they faced. These included hilarious things like a career advisor showing detailed reports to a panelists’s parents on how few women succeed in Science and Engineering to deter her from continuing her studies as an engineer!

Their 5 word advice to young people was:

  • don’t the sweat the small stuff
  • don’t give up
  • follow your passion
  • don’t be hard on yourself
  • believe in yourself

It was interesting that almost all the panelists’s parents had wanted them to be doctors and their choice of Photonics was unexpected to their families.

I am looking forward to Monday now!

Art, light and the Serpentine

Every year since 2000 the Serpentine Galleries host a summer pavilion by celebrated architects who have not worked/displayed in UK before. Serpentine Pavilions a pictorial history

This free to the public event is immensely and is a terrific way to see some high quality design and interplay of ideas that bring together architecture, design, art, science.

The 2015 pavilion by the Spanish practice, Selgasgno, have created a colourful pavilion using Fluorine coated polymer which seems to have an iridescent colour and appearance. These effects are obviously interferance as opposed to structural colour  related. Unfortunately the pavilion wasn’t open beyond 6pm for me to see how the effect changes when the lighting is not so bright, or is Sodium lighting. To me the whole thing felt a bit like a low budget sci-fi movie set so I was a bit disappointed.

Iridescent colour of the polymer film

Though the pavilion tries to explore in the words of Selgacgno “public to experience architecture through simple elements: structure, light, transparency, shadows, lightness, form, sensitivity, change, surprise, colour and materials”, it seemed like the understanding of light is still somewhat non technical.

What technical understanding of light would bring and how, I am unable to say. But I do know that it would be lovely to see it being used to being about a true melding of art, design and the Science of light.

Nonetheless I enjoyed my visit and this series of new summer pavilion each year is something very much worth visiting!

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, 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!

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.

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!

An unexpected exposure!

Some you may have read a blogpost I wrote a while ago on the National Student Survey (NSS), critiquing it.

As it was a while ago, it came as quite a surprise to me when a journalist from the Guardian asked if I could summarise the post into a shorter article for their website!

I agreed and lo and behold, it is up on the Guardian website, along with another short comment on freshers’ week.

Quite exciting and fun as it was unexpected. Perhaps writing about policy on this blog is ok after all!

In a bind

Student days… my glasses are misting in memory of those fun filled days: laughter, friends, evenings out, and such like.

Unremarkably, this kind of memory is a selective. In these sepia printed snapshots of my youth, there is no sign of the tensions associated with exams, report submissions and incomplete projects!

Well, as it is, I dont have to rely on memory for that!

I am attending the MA in Academic Practice here at City Uni London and along with the fabulous learning (on how to teach) come the assignments, group work, assessments and the like. So if this post is a little rambling forgive me for my brains are scrambled! Right now I am well behind on two chunks of my module on Technology Enhanced Academic Practice (TEAP):

– social bookmarking: we need to use a tool like DIIGO to bookmark sites and write about some of these
– the final project (also the biggest chunk of the module!)

This module has been all about using technology in a blended learning environment: mixing traditional teaching methods and approaches with technology. All of it felt new (even the traditional teaching and learning models, leave alone the new stuff).
I learned about things like:
•Salmon’s five step model
•Community of Practice/Community of Inquiry
•Reflective practice
•Constructive alignment
•Social constructivism
•Problem-based learning
•Situated Learning
•Laurillard’s Conversational Framework

So the tech stuff (which is increasingly important given the digital nature of our lives) in the course was on:
– how to use online communities in teaching and learning. It is possible to use wikis and blogs etc. to get students to interact with one another as well as the instructor to learn, sometimes remotely and even asynchronously
– reflection: getting students to reflect on their work and learning to improve their learning outcomes
– tools like Diigo for social bookmarking, blogs for interaction

My project is on formative assessment using tools like Moodle (online platform used my many universities for education). The formative assessment idea is that students learn as they test themselves, but they learn better if they can get feedback very quickly (even real time) and they are able to judge where they are weak, or what mistakes they tend to make.
So I (over reached) and said that I would make a series of short numerical Physics questions, which can be delviered via Moodle and be set up in such a way that students can get feedback as they attempt the question.

Not only that! I then thought this was too easy. So I would then make a series of short videos explaining how people could use Moodle to set up such tests, since many colleagues find it difficult to do this. What was I thinking?!!!!

And now here I am, using this blog and online community to moan about the hardships of my student life. I have enjoyed the course tremendously and it has sparked so many new ideas in my head about teaching. But it has also reminded me how my students feel.

So if anyone of you is in danger of forgetting the pressures of student life, enroll into a course now!