Friday, April 13, 2018

This Was In March

I just want to blog for the record, things that have occurred in March. There were two things that we were looking forward to in the previous month.

First, there was this visit by the new Italian Ambassador to Malaysia, His Excellency Cristiano Maggipinto on 9 March 2018. We were actually surprised and delighted to have received a message from the Ambassador's office about the intended visit earlier the previous month. After a few date changes, we settled for March 9 and his visit was specifically to come to the institute to know more closely about the activities of Malaysia-Italy Centre of Excellence for Mathematical Sciences (MICEMS). MICEMS inauguration was in March 10, 2016, and his visit coincided with the second anniversary. We prepared some slides showing the activities of MICEMS and previous exchange students (under ERASMUS+ programme) gave short presentations. Here are some photos:

During the meeting, there was the reiteration of the support from the ambassador's office for the MICEMS initiative and the possibility of the initiation of a broader framework of Malaysia-Italy cooperation in science and culture. A sidenote, the institute would like to thank the staff who willingly stepped in to be the photographer for the event as the usual photographer was no longer available.

Just prior to the ambassador's visit, I was in IAS, NTU, Singapore for the Particles and Cosmology conference and the AFPS meeting but I will report this in a separate post. Another event that we were looking forward to was the Malaysian Quantum Explorations of Science and Technology (MyQuEST) 2018 Colloquium.  I dreamed up this event in a way as a substitute for EQuaLS; the latter involved international speakers while MyQuEST will target specifically for local speakers, researchers and students. My colleague Assoc. Prof. Dr. Jesni Shamsul Shaari agreed to host it in IIUM, Kuantan on 19th March 2018. The event in a way put our two groups in UPM and IIUM together. Here are some pics:

I certainly hope that MyQuEST initiatives will grow and becomes a tradition among local quantum researchers and enthusiats. The photos above are courtesy of our group member, Shela. A day before the colloquium, most of us were in Kuantan for Syaza's wedding:

March 2018 is also filled with sadness with departures of physicists and a close neighbour. First was the shocking news of Prof. Chia Swee Peng's departure just after I came back home from Singapore. Prof. Chia was the past president of Malaysian Institute of Physics (IFM). I believe I knew his name since I was a tutor way back in 1985, reading Majalah Fizik at the Department. I probably met him in person probably during the Fifth Asia-Pacific Physics Conference way back in 1992 (see conference proceedings here). At the time I just came back from Bintulu campus to the main Serdang campus. He is probably the person who convinced me to join IFM and be active there. After a while, I began to be too busy with the research institutes in UPM. Nevertheless we maintained contact and Prof. Chia on several occasions supported our events at the institute (see pics below). I see him as a fatherly figure and he will surely be missed by many of us.

The other departure was the well-known theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking who passed away on March 14, 2018. Being once at DAMTP, University of Cambridge, I have on several occasions see the man in person and attended many of his talks. I do not know him personally but his book with George Ellis, "The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time" was certainly on my frequent reading list during my study. Publicly he is more readily known by his popular book "A Brief History of Time". His passing also made me realise about how not to interact with some others who do not particularly know you. Once I posted what I have said here on the social media and there are some who thought I was bragging about the matter and was met with some hostile remarks, and in part belittling Hawking's achievements. I quickly deleted the post. My intent was not to brag but more of sharing stories with people I know, particularly students. Yes, reading Hawking and meeting him in person in seminars really meant something personal to me but it doesn't make me any more intelligent than what I'm already is. Anyway, the general public do not really know what it takes to be a person like Hawking and what are his achievements. To know what Hawking's achievements are, one can read Sabine Hossenfelder's blogpost "Stephen Hawking dies at 76. What was he famous for?". I like reading articles on Hawking written by those who were really close to him. Here is what Penrose says about Hawking: Nathan Myhrvold also wrote a piece: Martin Rocek also wrote something but it was a FB post, so I'm copying it here: "I guess everyone is posting their thoughts about Stephen Hawking. Here are my personal observations: Many people have heard of Stephen Hawking, the “genius in a wheelchair”, but far fewer know what he did and what he was like. I was his post-doctoral fellow for two and half years, and so I am able to comment a bit both on his work and on other aspects of his life.
Stephen’s first big breakthrough was the realization that Penrose’s theorems about the inevitability of singularities in black holes in Einstein’s Theory of Gravitation could be applied in reverse to imply that inevitability of the Big Bang singularity and the beginning of time. His next, and most important, breakthrough was the realization that due to quantum effects, black holes are not black—they emit what is now called “Hawking Radiation”. This shocking discovery implied that, despite the many orders of magnitude of scale that separated them, Einstein’s theory could not ignore the quantum world.
In 1979, Stephen hired me to teach him about supergravity, the remarkable extension of Einstein’s theory that Peter van Nieuwenhuizen, Daniel Freedman, and Sergio Ferrara had discovered two years earlier at Stony Brook—later I learned that Stephen hired me on Peter’s recommendation. Though I failed to teach Stephen supergravity, it was nevertheless a very productive time for Stephen. During this time, among many other projects, he explored the effects of gravitational instantons, and performed calculations developing the consequences of his then recently proposed "Information Paradox"; though his argument that Hawking Radiation implied the breakdown of quantum mechanics is generally not accepted today (Stephen himself rejected it later in life), it stimulated a wealth of important research, some of which is described in Leonard Susskind’s entertaining book "The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics".
My time with Stephen’s group let me see some things that are not as well known. He always had a number of students and postdocs with him. He would work with them by asking them to write equations on the blackboard—at that time he was already confined to a motorized wheel chair and could not write himself, but he could still speak, albeit with such difficulty that only those who spent a lot of time with him could understand him. Nonetheless, he had a sharp sense of humor, and despite the effort it took, made jokes and displayed his knowledge in areas outside of physics—at a dinner where I was feeding him, he explained to me the proper way to fillet a braised trout; since a bone could have been quite dangerous to him, I had to be a quick learner. He tried to lead a normal life, with the necessary accommodation for his physical condition. Thus driving his wheelchair by himself was “walking”, etc. He spent time with his children, he went with the group for lu.nch at the “grad-pad”, went to the pub with us, and so on. All the students and postdocs did their part in helping to make this possible; he would tell us what we should and shouldn’t do to help him.
Stephen would go on to propose that the universe began with a quantum fluctuation that replaced the singularity of the Big Bang, and many other important and thought- provoking ideas. He was a great mentor: many of his students and postdocs went on to very successful academic careers. He was a role model for those overcoming physical adversity, and through his many books, a great popularizer of physics and science in general. He will be missed."

Another theoretical physicist who passed away earlier but was less publicly known is P.G.O. Freund whose book on Supersymmetry I also use. His departure is reported here:

Departure closer to home: was our close neighbour Zarak who passed away on the morning of March 29. He was earlier warded for heart complications and later we were told about his critical conditions. That day, had to chair a meeting and then rushed home for his funeral. His departure certainly reminded me about how fragile we are and was reflecting on my own conditions.

I don't want to end this post in a sad mood. This March also saw the awarding of Abel Prize to Robert Langlands (March 20). There was little fanfare here since Abel Prize is not as much celebrated as Nobel Prize. In fact, the work is very technical for general public to digest. Langlands' work involves connecting representation theory with number theory through mathematical functions known as automorphic forms. We are happy to note here (not brag) that part of our research is indeed on automorphic forms known as Maass cusp forms involving Fuchsian groups and hyperbolic surfaces. There is a wealth of materials on the subject and we are still very much learning the subject hoping to discover more interesting things.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

INSPEM 16th Anniversary and Institutes Elsewhere

I thought I should reblog on this special day. It is the 16th anniversary of Institute for Mathematical Research in Universiti Putra Malaysia (INSPEM, UPM). It was on this day in 2002 that INSPEM was officially formed though the groundwork went much earlier than that. Rather than talk about the past, I would like to dwell on the future. At the age of 16, the institute will now enter its fourth phase and if things go as planned, we would be much at the international stage. In some way, we have established cooperation with our Italian partner, Politecnico di Torino by having an office for  Malaysia-Italy Centre of Excellence for Mathematical Sciences (MICEMS) right in INSPEM building. Indeed Politecnico is planning to deploy an Italian researcher and staff here in the near future.

Having said this, the last few years also saw budget cuts for the public universities. As a result, the institute has reduced the number of staff over the period, with some senior professors leaving. So the near future will be ever more challenging. More so, as an institute for mathematical research, we will not be as visible as other institutes given the nature of our research and hence the need to make our institute ever more relevant.

Perhaps one should also observe what is happening in other countries with respect to research institutes in mathematical sciences. Certainly, one can see more institutes are being established (not the other way round) showing the (long-term) need for a research ecosystem rooted in highly advanced mathematics given the more complex problems of science and technology. One could try to justify the instituteby throwing in buzzwords like artificial intelligence, big data and quantum technology whose foundations in mathematics are known. To some mathematical researchers, sometimes one feel uncomfortable justifying our research this way since for most of the time the practical applications of mathematical discoveries are often unknown or are very distant in the future. Suffice for us just to demonstrate its international sense of importance through the list of growing mathematics institutes in technological advanced countries. Here are some (not exhaustive):
Despite my near-retirement, I sincerely wish INSPEM continue to grow strong and be a successful internationally respected research institute.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Travels and Media Varia

Today, I'm in Institute of Advanced Studies, Nanyang Technological University once again with some of my students. Just the day before came back from Gambang, Pahang. So, was feeling a bit tired with all the travels.

The travel to Gambang was for my third son's registration for Foundation Studies at IIUM. Apparently they have been asked to move from the Petaling Jaya (PJ) campus (close to KL) to the one in Gambang for their third semester. Gambang is a small town in Pahang and unlike PJ, to travel here is certainly not a one-day to and fro matter. We decided to take leave for a day (Friday) to come to Gambang. Initially we are worried about flash floods, which Gambang had, the week before. Indeed, it was raining all the way to Gambang but the road wasn't flooded. We stayed at Bukit Gambang Resort Centre, a place that has safari and water theme park, for which my family seems to love going to (have been here twice). Unfortunately, they have removed the wi-fi in the rooms and wi-fi is only available in public places. This was inconvenient for me since much of my work (e.g. submitting exam marks and endorsing staff assessment marks) requires me to be online. Being too tired and with work on my mind, I stayed mostly indoors and did not follow my family to the safari theme park. The only animal I saw there was the kitten who was trapped on the ledge near the balcony of our room, all shivering and hungry. We asked the hotel if it is OK for us to bring it home and they were grateful that we did. So we bought a carrier and some food to bring the kitten (my son named Melly - see pic below). She seemed rather fierce out of survival instinct being left in the open for so long and currently having problems adapting to our home environment with many cats.

On Sunday, we finally sned our son for registration at his new college. The college is just about 5 minute-drive away from the result, situated near Kolej Matrikulasi Pahang and the Paya Besar Community College. The campus facilities there seems much better than the one in PJ - quite big (with a stadium) if it is just for foundation studies. His room is again better than the one (see pics below). We hope that he adapts quickly to the new environment.

The next day was my flight to Singapore for the memorial conference for Robert Brout on Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking. Brout was a co-worker with the Nobel Laureate Francous Englert who will be there to give his talk on memories with Brout. Indeed the conference will be star-studded as usual with Nobel Laureates, Duncan Haldane, Gerard 't Hooft and Field Medalist Michael Atiyah. I am looking forward to the conference talks that begin today. Many of my students have come to IAS, NTU and I was encouraging those who had not been here to come. It will be a good experience for them to see many luminaries in action and the intense research atmosphere that they have here. It is certainly an atmosphere that I dream to build with our own institute back home (even if it is a fraction). Coupled to the fact that Singapore is just next door (travelling expenses are minimal with generous support of accommodation and really cheap registration fees), it is only a small sacrifice of time and money to be there with very much a good opportunity of great learning at the conference. Besides the educational experience, perhaps one thing that I hope to instill in my students is the need of sacrifice in our pursuit of knowledge. Have many fond memories at IAS, NTU and had always tried to be here whenever possible. Given that I'm about to retire, I hope that Dr. Nurisya and Dr. Chan can continue to bring students here for enrichment of their research experience.

Having said about my retirement, I'm trying my best to contribute as much as I can and give back to the society. Despite being media-shy and have avoided myself toomuch in the limelight, I agreed to be interviewed by Majalah Sains (whose editor cum founder I know). Some questions were given to me on 29 November last year but only got around to answering them (completely) on 5 January. The interview has been published sometime last week and can be found at I have avoided publicising it myself in Facebook (some other people did) but I will do this here (less intrusive). Hope the interview meant something to some, letting everyone know what we are trying to build at UPM.