Friday, June 15, 2018

'Eid 1439

Today Muslims in Malaysia are celebrating 'Eid-ul-Fitr. As mentioned in one of my FB post, there was very little mood in me to celebrate since I have many unfinished tasks and a forthcoming trip to Istanbul much on my mind. Anyway, here I am in Segamat with the whole family for 'Eid.

Like most families, in the morning, we had our breakfast (signifying we are no longer fasting) and then went for 'Eid prayers. After the prayers, we meet each family member to seek forgiveness from each other. Another tendency these days, is to have the family to don clothes of same or similar colour. So here we are:

With brothers-in-law:

Just before Eid, the institute also took some group photos for 'Eid purposes. Here is a fun pic:

Probably more pics later ....

Thursday, June 14, 2018

An Average Normal Guy Dreams

We have now reached the end of another Ramadhan and in each Ramadhan, I have set targets for my Muslim self. Unfortunately, I think I have not achieved much this year and perhaps in some respect, even regressed to my state of being 2-3 years ago. I hope I will get another opportunity to meet Ramadhan next year and progress more as a good Muslim. Such is the situation of a normal guy, with ups and downs. This is not quite what I want to discuss in this post. As an academician, one is more often judged by the degree of intelligence that one shows. So here is how I picture myself: just an average guy but is working hard to be good intellectually in the limited way I know how.

Many of us would like to perceive ourselves as intelligent, usually much to reaffirm our sense of self-worthiness but some would like to think of themselves better than others. Such behaviour can be seen a lot on the social media, though this is not really quite the platform to appropriately judge one's intelligence. Actually this has got me bored with FB, particularly the political posts. Now I have started to switch to Twitter for quick useful news items (including arXiv tweets). Occasionally I tweet too and those interested can follow me at @hishamuddinz1.

Let me trace back to my younger self in the school days. I was not the top student but perhaps I'm within the top 10-15 students. I tend not to study as hard as some of my school-mates but yet scored well on some subjects. So news spread around about me doing well despite of me going to bed early. The thing is that I tend to absorb lessons quite well in class and once I understand things, then I do not really need to study too much for them. I guess this trait carries on with me until today. When I listen to talks and seminars, I tend to skip details (which could be picked up later) but focus more on the gist of the talks. So the time at school had build up my confidence to a certain extent.

Now, my high school is a very small world often shielded from much wilder world of competition out there. As I traveled to Adelaide for my matriculation and bachelor degree, I found many more people who are out there as 'lazy' as I was but are able to do well in their exams. It was only in my third year of B.Sc. (note: Honours year will be the fourth year) that I took my study a tad more seriously to compete with Australian students. I still remember two persons that I looked up to then was Gerald Dunne and Simon Twisk, who did much better than me. During Honours year, took up a project on modifications of minimal SU(5) grand unified theory and also found myself doing well in the exams that got me First Class Honours. I guess then I was not that bad. I wanted to do supergravity (still new at the time) but a professor (name withheld) told me that I don't have the personality to do it and reminded me how competitive this field of research is. I took that comment as a challenge and went on to study Wess and Bagger thereafter and later Peter van Nieuwenhuizen's Physics Report paper. After graduating, I joined UPM and found myself in the Physics Department. The only people then who was theoretical physics inclined are Prof. Mohd Yusof Sulaiman (nuclear physicist) and Dr. Zainul Abidin Hassan (condensed matter theorist). In terms of physics of my interest I found that I don't have many people to talk to. At the time, I got myself interested in religion, started scouring religious books and even subscribed to MAAS Journal of Islamic Science. Later, I found myself deciding that I can't be proficient in religion together with my interest in theoretical physics. This is much due to me not knowing Arabic which disallowed me to access the primary and original sources.

Later, I applied for Part III of Mathematical Tripos (equivalent to a M.Sc. coursework) in DAMTP. There, everything that I thought I was good at, shattered - having to compete some of the best in the world (one of which is Fay Dowker). Anyway, I managed to get through (some of  my friends did not). Instead of getting a PhD offer at DAMTP, I got one in Cavendish if I decide to stay in Cambridge but doing so would mean leaving the area that I have grown to love at the time. I was already subscribing International Journal of Modern Physics A, a journal which just started at the time published by the Singaporean publisher World Scientific. I remembered looking into Witten's article "Topological Tools in Ten-Dimensional Physics" and said to myself that this is what I would like to do, more than I wanted to do supergravity. There is something about using somewhat abstract mathematical ideas to describe physics in a surprising way, that got me attracted. That stayed with me until today. My journey continued with a PhD study in Durham under the supervision of Richard S. Ward. The research was not quite on integrable models but more on quantisation started off by Chris Isham. With the PhD done, I knew well that I wasn't that good and wished that I was given a better beginning academically to pursue theoretical physics.

This has led me to dream and go on a mission to create the appropriate working environment for theoretical physics right here in UPM. This has not been easy particularly when I am alone (at the time) with Prof. Yusof and Dr. Zainul leaving UPM. An opportunity came with the invitation of Prof. Wan Ishak to form a theoretical studies laboratory in ITMA, suggested by our then visitor Prof. M.A.K. Lodhi. At the time I did not know INSPEM is about to form and I invited mathematicians (Dr. Nik Mohd Asri and Prof. Adem) to help establish programs in the lab with the assistance of Prof. Usmani, his student Dr. Rita Sinha as well as other theorists from neighbouring universities. There was a mismatch of areas with what I would like to pursue but we worked closely as much that we could then. Only five months after that, INSPEM was formed that caught me by surprise. I had to think and reorientate the direction of the lab itself perhaps closer to the aims of ITMA as a technological institute. At the time we came up with the idea of quantum science and technology, a program which unfortunately had to discontinue after the restructuring of the institutes, which involves the 'merging' of the Theoretical Studies Laboratory with INSPEM. In INSPEM, again I had to reorientate the research direction again, aligning with the aims of the institute. I started reading on complex networks which I thought would be useful to the institute and start to take students on this (at the time Lam Shi Xiang and Zurita Ismail). Dr. Chan Kar Tim (my ex-PhD student) has also started to work in this area and hopefully this will be firmly established in the few years to come. Of course I envision the institute to do more, interfacing mathematics with various other sciences but even within mathematics itself where one can see some of the greatest discoveries in mathematics involve more branches of mathematics fused together. For interfacing with physics, Dr. Nurisya Mohd Shah (my ex M.Sc. student and Ph.D. student of the late Prof. Syed Twareque Ali) can pursue this alongside with my other students. One of my dreams, of course, is to see more of geometry and topology being pursued since these areas have been fertile not only in mathematics but also in theoretical physics. There is also category theory with logic and theoretical computer science, which we have yet to be explored fully (only one M.Sc. student, Siti Aqilah so far).

As I said, being an average guy intellectually, I think we have progressed but we have not quite hit the target that I've been dreaming thus far. There is still a long journey ahead. Beginning with EQuaLS, I had been planning that there one should first understand and be comfortable with the sophisticated forefront areas within our environment. After being comfortable with such areas, then can only one contribute new knowledge. The next stage is to be known for our work. Here, I do not mean only locally or limited to some circles but at a much more international level and this is ultra hard (competing ideas among the world's best). I do still dream to hit on some original good ideas in the limited time I have left and I hope my younger colleagues do dream too. It is thus important to always be exposed to the international community for this to work. After achieving such level, I think we would have reached a sustainable phase for future good theoretical work. Dream on ....

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Mid-Ramadhan 1439 Post

It has been more than a month since I last post to this blog. We already have gone past half of Ramadhan this year with many historic events gone by. We have now a new government installed just before Ramadhan. Leading the new government is our fourth Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir but now attached to a different party and coalition, becoming our seventh Prime Minister. At the risk of being called cliche, Tun Dr. Mahathir being 93 and working at this age, prompted me to reexamine my previous thoughts. I find it embarrassing that I have been looking forward to my retirement, complaining of old age and so on. But the real reason for breaking my silence is simply to respond to certain events that I felt some need to air my own personal views.

On the position of the institute, we are still going strong despite budget cuts and shrunk human resource, thanks to our researchers and staff. We continue to do our work regardless comments or even imminent (imagined) changes that some would like to happen. We are submitting our application to be a national HiCoE and continue further with international collaboration through MICEMS. Personally I would like to see the institute grow in reputation and be well-respected internationally. I see ideas and opportunities to develop the institute if given enough support. Hopefully with the new government, we will have better funding despite the national financial situation.

I have been with the institutes (three different ones) for more than 16 years. I was lucky to be part of the institute in its early days. There were uneasy episodes between the faculties and institutes but I would have expected after more than 16 years, most of these have been resolved. Indeed presently, research contributions (papers and grants) from the institute's research associates (who are faculty members) will also be counted as the faculty's. As far as institute's management members' time, the agreement in the early days was that they will still contribute to teaching in the faculty and is limited to such since they need to develop the institute as implied by their duty when appointed. I still hold on to this principle. It will be double-fold duty if management members need to contribute to meetings in both institutes and faculties. Of course when there is real necessity for the management members to be there at the faculty, the members can be contacted personally.

Sometimes questions arise what has the institute contributed. I believe, there is a lot. Perhaps, one just need to compare the research of say, mathematics department about 15 years ago and of now. Of course, there are compound effects but let us not deny that the institute helped. Personally, I would like to think our role at the institute is to create new opportunities and environment for researchers besides the one that they have at the faculties. I will just simply take my theoretical physics research group as an example to make it more specific. At the institutes, we have visiting scientists program and events (involving prominent researchers) that had benefited the group. The late Prof. S. Twareque Ali (whose loss affected us greatly) was invited by us during the first EQuaLS and he later became the PhD supervisor for Dr. Nurisya Mohd Shah, our group member. In fact, Prof. Twareque did more than just that, he participated in most of our EQuaLS events (see links here) and became our visiting scientist during the period October-December 2012. He was also the thesis examiner for my PhD student Dr. Saeid Molladavoudi. At the end of EQuaLS1, Prof. Twareque Ali hugged me and said something like "this is the beginning of an important tradition" but EQuaLS will never be the same without him and we have yet to think how to start again in his absence.

The other group member is Dr. Chan Kar Tim whose PhD thesis was on parallel computation of cusp forms on hyperbolic spaces. This research actually started earlier where I realise in order to have a complete picture of how hyperbolic geometry affects quantization, we need to do numerical computation of quantum bound states, something which I dreaded in the beginning (not really a computation guy). So in the beginning, we reined in the help of Holger Then who had computed Maass cusp forms of modular group for large eigenvalues. This started us off in developing Mathematica programs for computing the cusp forms. Later, we also reined in the help of Fredrik Stromberg, another expert on cusp form computation (see here), whom we invited as visiting scientist and speaker for EQuaLS5. With advices from both experts, we successfully published papers on such computations through the PhD work of Dr. Chan Kar Tim. In the physics department now, Dr. Chan would be the resource person for computational aspects in physics.

The above is just simply for the theoretical physics group. I am pretty sure other members of the faculty has benefited from the institute's visitors and programmes. As such, I hope there will be less negative talk on the institute's contributions. It will be unfortunate and disappointing if faculty-institute rift resurfaces (in whatever form) after years of coexistence. Personally, I prefer to be forward-looking and be not involved in office politics. My main concern now is how to make the progress we have made so far to be sustainable. Surely there is enough work there.

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.