The Diary of an academic nomad: saudades

Today I came across a Portuguese word that prompted me to write this post.

The word is saudades. I understand that  this is a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. The Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo says it is: “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”

On a science (mostly) blog this may be an odd topic to write about but I feel more than many topics this is true for nomads, even academic ones. Or perhaps even more so for us who are meant to be only rational and scientific with little sentiment. Each time we move after having made a place home we embrace or succumb to this pleasure-pain. What keeps us moving is often prosaic (making ends meet, career advancement) and at times deeper (the restless need to explore something new).

Today I miss London so much it is almost a  physical ache – I can barely look anywhere or at anything without it reminding me of London. Why can we not live in two places at once? Why this pain of having to choose?

What will happen if ever I could go on space travel- how much would I miss all the places on Earth? Would I be able to live for saudades?

To make this separation more bearable or to make Sydney more my home I am trying to start a local section of OSA with some colleagues drawn from various institutions across Sydney. It is of no particular surprise to me that most of us have come to Sydney from other parts of the world. Although our explicitly stated objectives and intentions in forming the section are professional and scientific, I think somewhere the truth of it includes trying to recreate that which we are nostalgic for- a piece of our history even.

It is lovely that Science is the form by which we try and find those connections with our own lives.

Have you felt this way ever?


A roundup for CLEO 2018

Here I am on Friday afternoon after CLEO 2018 with a mini roundup.

It’s been a great week with some surprises that I especially enjoyed.

So first my favourite talks:

The plenary talks by Nader Engheta on metaphotonics was very good. I loved it also because it is so refreshing to see someone talking about theoretical and simulation related work at the highest level. The idea that we could use metamaterials to solve integral equations tickled my fancy!

There were two delightful plenaries by Dr. Sara Seagar and the Nobel Prize winner of 2006 for his work on the COBE satellite and Cosmic MicroWave Background (CMB) measurement, Dr. John Mather, both that went into my special love: astrophysics. The first one was devoted to searching for exoplanets. Whilst the second gave a sort of tour of important astrophysical discoveries and focused on some major telescopes, including what is coming up with the James Webb telescope. So while I enjoyed both the talks, I also felt they were a little too generalist and not technical enough to satisfy my scientific appetite.

Other notable talks included in my opinion: A post deadline paper on generating combs for astrophotonics (JTh5A.1); another on generating higher THz harmonics in Graphene (JThA5.3).

The surprise for me were the special sessions organised by OSA technical groups. One was the round up of papers from across CLEO on non-linear optics. Papers were summarised and perspective on the work was given to contextualise the papers with what is happening in the rest of the field. The session was also a bit more informal and interactive. I think this was a great way to get a good overview of the field and the conference especially if one cannot attend all the talks!

The second special sessionl also run by an OSA technical group was a tutuorial on Photonic Metamaterials and Metasurface design and simulation. In an hour the basic idea of how to design metasurfaces with some codes being run etc were discussed. Again the informal nature of the session was quite refreshing.

I also enjoyed the Diversity and Inclusion reception- each year I see more people attend and this includes a very diverse attendee profile. I see more and more men attending and realising that diversity events are not just for chicks!

A very special moment was meeting one of my heros- Prof. Hugo Hernandez, whose papers on simulation and methods have been part of my reading for ever so long. His clarity of thought and concepts is amazing. Obviously something like this is unique to each one of us- whom we admire deeply- but is it not lovely to meet that person and have a chance to actually talk!

So all in all very happy with my time at CLEO. Looking forward to the next conference now, but not the long flights or the jetlag!



Biennale, seismic activity and CLEO

So folks to start off the post- here is my latest crib about the intersection of art and science.

Once again at the Biennale in Sydney (this time at the carriageworks- a fantastic venue) I saw an exhibit/installation called Earthworks by Semiconductor. This work by Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt  and I quote uses “… a scientific technique known as analogue modelling, where pressure and motion are applied to layers of particles to simulate tectonic forces, Earthworks is a five-channel immersive experience. As the name suggests, the computer-generated animation uses seismic data from the formation of landscapes and terrain around the world – glaciers, earthquakes, volcanoes and human-made topographies – which is translated into audio used as soundtrack to the piece and the method of controlling the animation.”

Basically they took seismic data and produced a fascinating animation coupled with sound.

Why am I whingeing about it?

To begin with taking scientific data and presenting some strange shapes/sounds and calling it art seems disingenuous to me. Then the larger problem: they dont explain (through a colour key for example) what the colours in the animation represent: density/pressure/volume and where at what time scale. What is the significance of this data and the film we see? This idea that contemporary art can be just about anything that looks pretty/weird and makes little sense, to me is condescending to the viewer and a waste of public money. The use of scientific data is further mystifying science and making it even more arcane to the public. All in all such exhibits remove both art and science farther away from the average person than bring it closer or make it more comprehensible.

But onto happier things: CLEO!

Yes, the 2018 CLEO is almost upon us and once again I will be teaching my short course on FEM there and attending the conference. I am really looking forward to the talks and events and will hopefully get the time to blog here about the ones  I enjoyed the most.

If you are also attending CLEO and would like to say hello please do so!

From art to optics…

My fascination with art is not new to those of you who read my blog.

Today I wanted to mention a scientist and inventor whom I admire very much: Susan Houde-Walter.

What really fascinates me about her is the career path: from art to science. She was an art student who got interested in holography and using holograms as an art form and eventually became a scientist, inventor and started her own company making miniaturised laser systems.

It is unusual to find people who start life in arts and pick up science and maths and go into these careers. Typically we find migration the other way. But I wonder what it is like inside the head and imagination of someone who is as creative both artistically and scientifically?

Not only that, Susan has been a President of the Optical Society of America in 2005. so there are a lot of superlatives there….


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?

The Journal of an academic nomad

Setting up professional life in a new country and a new  department after having lived elsewhere for a long time is a bit like climbing a  tricky mountain.

Do you know one of those mountains which has several ridges and switchbacks?  so you are constantly having to turn around and feel like you haven’t  really reached very far even though you’ve been climbing for hours!

First of all it’s never about the professional life alone.  you need to do simple things like find a place to live, furniture, get the Internet connected… all those little things  you take for granted in a home.  the logistics can add spice of not knowing the area sufficiently and bumbling along constantly, being tripped up by the smallest things:  getting off at the wrong bus stop,  choosing the worst company or provider for a service et cetera.   The emotional toll it takes  to manage in an environment  that is completely new and in some ways alien is not something that we reckon with until we come across it.  By then the only way to deal with it is to soldier through. Of course these things are part of the fun  even if it doesn’t feel very funny at the time!

Trying to get all this sorted in parallel with setting up a new lab is pretty challenging.

For me the biggest challenge has been ( in the professional bit) to  find appropriate manpower.  in my previous lab I had set up:  computers, software and most importantly good PhD students.  PhD students are the lifeblood of any lab and research:  without them it almost impossible to sustain work.  It takes time to find good students and effort to train them and build a good partnership  that is fruitful for both student and supervisor. In a new  department the challenge is to find  funding sources  And mechanisms to recruit PhD students and then  training them ( I’m  not spending  lines on issues like Visa processing et cetera).   The time it takes to achieve just the setting up means almost up to  a year can pass before you have a good student  in place and longer before some meaningful research output can be delivered.

 Yet there is excitement: there is the chance to work with new partners who have different perspectives and  new facilities,  new research problems.  There is a palpable sense of possibilities, of the future... which keeps beckoning you  onwards and helps provide the incentive to whether through the  birthing pains.  Just as I  said earlier this comes with the  other aspects of life: discovering a new city, new food,  art!

All in all the  the fun and the less fun bits go together-  and in the process there is a  huge amount of personal growth having gone through all of this.




Programming Languages and Art

I was recently translating a very old piece of code written in the ’80s in FORTRAN77 to Matlab. This process has taken me 3 weeks for 20 line code!

Partly because probably I am not a skilled programmer and partly because statements like GOTO do not exist in Matlab.

My aim was to work out exactly the efficiency of a numerical algorithm so I needed to know exactly the value of each variable at every loop counter etc. so the code had to be transcribed exactly. No fancy coding skills to improve the “code” were to be invoked.

In this exercise I realised that programming is more an art form than anything else. There is a beautiful flow of logic (actual mathematical algorithm)  that has to be channeled (dictated by the language constructs, data structures and commands) into a specific form (much like a canal I suppose).

Each time we choose a different language, expressing the same algorithm can take a very different form. Interestingly the language itself can impose either an improvement or a the opposite. In some ways the language can function like the clothes we force our bodies into- giving a specific shape.

In some cases its bit a like struggling to find a word in a language where it doesn’t exist  to express a sentiment that we have a word for in another language.

I wonder if anyone has studied how programming language constraints influence actual logic/algorithms?

Or is this simply my own lack of expertise leading me to fanciful thoughts?

Of PhD theses

Some years ago I was writing my PhD thesis and today my student is writing his. Not only that I’m at this point examining the PhD theses of students from other universities.

What a big change it is from being a candidate  to being a supervisor or examiner!

All these three things are related and yet completely different.

"My doctoral thesis looks like a fake? Scandalous! I'll have a word with the bloke I bought it from!"

Cartoon on PhD thesis


As a student my worries were about trying to finish on time, producing something that my supervisor would find acceptable and then stressing about the viva-voce. I did not realise it at the time but a lot of the responsibility for successful completion of the PhD lay with my supervisor. I would often give him my results or work and then rest easy that his judgement would be sufficient. It did not occur to me at that time that it would’ve placed a certain burden on him, all that his judgement (given that all judgements are subjective) not be in agreement with that of  reviewers of a paper or a PhD examiner.

Those were the days of mental freedom and relative lack of worry.

As a supervisor suddenly the table has turned!

Now it’s my job to make sure that My PhD student’s thesis meets certain standards. So now I spend hours reading draft after draft, giving extensive and detailed comments on how to improve the chapter that I’m reading. Additionally I stress about preparing the student for their viva examination or thesis defence: Will they be able to answer the questions ask ed by the examiner? Is their knowledge of the literature and state-of-the-art sufficient? Is their command of the basic concepts sufficiently strong? Will they be able to control their nervousness?

In some ways you could say this experience is more nerve wracking than that of being a PhD student.

And when I think about being an examiner this is an entirely different ballgame.

Now from the piece of work in front of you (a thesis) one has to make a decision whether the work presented is of the standard expected for a PhD: the results and/or techniques presented amount to a novel and significant contribution to the scientific community. It is no longer about just judging the excellence after work. One has to read the thesis to see whether the basics are presented insufficient detail (including for example a literature survey) that convinces one as an examiner that the student understands the basics and has sufficient scientific knowledge of the field. In the final defence one would also have to ascertain the degree of independence the student has displayed in completing the work.

On one hand are the quality considerations (that as an examiner you judge whether the University regulations for the award of the degree are being met). On the other hand are people considerations. How do you discount for the nervousness of the student? How well can you really judge whether the student has led the work or it’s been led by the supervisor? If unfortunately the student doesn’t answer questions as well as one would like, does it mean the student doesn’t deserve a PhD (given the body of work presented in the thesis)? You realise that it is someone’s career at stake and your judgement has a huge impact on then.

It is a huge responsibility.

There is also the matter of your own personal reputation. Are you being fair, objective and technically sound in your judgement? Even if you have been all of these things are you been perceived in this way? If a situation arises with the student have you handled it in the best possible way that satisfies the regulations and is humane and considerate?

I always thought it was easy to sit in the chair of the examiner. I am now finding that it is perhaps the most difficult position to be in.

If you have any thoughts do let me know.





























Bio-inspiration and Science

I came across this article about bio-inspired design in medicine and it resonated so much with me that I wanted to blog about it.

You can read the article here.

I particularly enjoyed the discussion that bio-inspiration and bio-mimicry can be useful but should not be followed blindly or thought to give answers to any and every problem.

The designs evolved in nature over millennia come about through constraints, and are therefore related to those constraints.  If the (design) problems we aim to solve have similar constraints then the bio design is a great template to explore.

It was inspirational also to read the personal story and journey of Jefrrey Karp and how he followed his intuition and design idea from a concept to a finished product!

I hope you enjoy the article as much as I did.

Thermodynamics and Photonics: a match made in California

Some of the best Science is that of sinple, elegant and seemingly outrageous ideas: the sort that relate to the basics of Physics.

At a recent plenary talk at Photon16 by Professor Shanhui Fan this is exactly what we got to see and hear. The idea of solar cells converting illumination (or what Shanhui calls positive illumiunation) into current is not new.

However he went a step further: negative illumination!

When a cell is dark, and if its temperature is higher than the ambient it must give away the excess energy to maintain thermodynamic equilibrium. Presto- current in the opposite direction compared to the daylight!

Ergo a cell that can generate electrical power in the day and the night!

To me this concept is beuatiful because it uses some fundamental and very simple Physics.

This sort of thinking that focuses not on technological aspects or narrow single disciplines alone but rather sees Science/Physics as a whole is what challenges status quo and leads to exciting new discoveries!