Friday, February 26, 2016

Pause to View A Bigger Picture

Today is our youngest son's birthday and I decided to take leave. I'm taking some rest off what seems to be a flurry of events and duties that we have taken up. It is quite easy to be given the impression that we are doing a lot of work, while most of what we do may not be critical to our core activities. (research, teaching and extension). So, it is perhaps wise once in a while to pause and take a step back, to look at the bigger picture. In a way, I find this article interesting in making us conscious of the different cultures that have crept in higher education.

Before this, I thought I should stop blogging for a while and be silent amidst all the uncertainties in fear of what I say might be misconstrued as looking for positions. However I feel I need to say some things out so that a visible bigger picture of what I do is made apparent to all.

Currently, I'm pushing for things what I consider important for the institute in the long run, namely, potential and committed international collaborations. These are not meant only for mere "making names" or "internationalization activities". I see them as strengthening and expanding our research horizon. Elsewhere in the world, institutions from different parts of the globe are collaborating in a systematic and concerted way. An example is our down south neighbour has their institutions collaborating with France to form Majulab (joint effort of NUS, NTU, CNRS and Nice Univ.). Having said that, sometimes people are too quick in making judgments that we are going to be poor copycats. I can safely say for the things that we are going to do, they are a mixture of availability of opportunities and visions of what we want to be. This, we do not do blindly. National agenda is certainly within our mind and thoughts are being put in how we can converge our different research directions and cultural inclinations. Not only that, thoughts and efforts are being put in to essentially just make things work (which people tend to forget as if the things we do are automatic). Sceptics will always be there, sometimes painting us as lesser beings (do we really want to side with them), and it has been a significant part of my life to challenge these stereotypings. Thus I pray that we will prove these sceptics wrong.

With the present transition that the institute is going through, my hope is that we remain strong in our goals and work our best to see things through.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Making Waves

I think I will break my blog silence for reasons I think should be made public below.

Let me backtrack  a few days before the Chinese New Year. Earlier in the year, the passing of Prof. Twareque Ali had shocked all of us. Then on February 6, 2016, news came to me on FB that Assoc. Prof. Dr. Mansor Hashim passed away at 3.30pm. Dr. Mansor was a senior colleague at the Physics Department whom I respect very much. When I first joined the department, he encouraged me to continue work on fundamental sciences. He himself was very interested in the fundamentals of magnetism and his research later was on ferrites. He was awarded the National Design/Invention Award (Anugerah Rekacipta Negara) in 1996. After retiring from the department, he joined the Institute of Advanced Technology (ITMA) as a research fellow. Our involvement in the institutes made us further apart and we see less of each other. It was only just a few days before his departure that I have learned that he was diagnosed with cancer. Now that he is gone, I regret that I did not get the chance to meet him while he was around. My prayers to him that Allah grant mercy on his soul.

This Chinese New Year often comes associated with the Chinese zodiac and astrological elements and the present one is associated to the animal monkey and the element fire - the year of Fire Monkey. It is said that such year will be unlucky. All the events above seem to suggest so together with all the current situation in Malaysia. But I don't subscribe to such ideas. To me, the future is (humanly) open - we make our future what it seems to be.

The doom and gloom was broken with some good news for the community of physicists. About a week ago, they announce that they have found direct evidence of gravitational waves. Before this, there has been indirect evidence of gravitational waves. The Nobel Prize to Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor Jr on the discovery of a binary pulsar whose orbit period is decreasing according to what is predicted if gravitational waves are emitted. The evidence was indirect. The present discovery comes from the merging of two black holes, violent enough to cause ripples of space-time to propagate far and significant enough for us to detect. Rumours of the discovery have been flying around before the announcement. The announcement coincides with the publication of the results in Physical Review Letters. Like any other physicist or scientist, I was equally excited with the official announcement and shared this piece of news on my FB timeline. I did not look up the original paper and who were on the list of authors.

It was Monday this week that I had the nice surprise of knowing a Malaysian was on the list of authors. It came through a private conversation with a close colleague of mine in IIUM. We were actually discussing about whether we should apply for LRGS or not. Then the conversation of the gravitational waves discovery came up and he made the remark that one of the authors is IIUM staff-trainee. I asked for her name and he mentions Hafizah Noor Isa. Then I said the name is familiar. True enough, we had communicated before. It was during Prof. Martin Hendry's visit to UPM with Elaine Lim. We organized a public talk by Prof. Hendry (see the poster below) on Gravitational Wave Astronomy and she was interested in coming.

The e-mail exchanges between three of us were short and I can't precisely remember meeting her face-to-face. But I guess that is how she met Prof. Martin Hendry and I did not know that she went on to join his group in Glasgow.

I looked up the ground-breaking paper that was published and search for her name (and also Prof. Hendry's). True enough her name was there written as H.N. Isa. Captured some images of the paper and posted it on FB.

Made the following remark with it: Little did people know that the recent breakthrough paper on the direct observation of gravitational waves involves a Malaysian, Hafizah Noor Isa, currently pursuing her PhD studies in Glasgow University from IIUM. I believe the remark is direct and unpretentious, no overclaiming and everyone is free to check it. At the time, I figured not many people knew it and it was too good not to share it with at least my close friends and students. Of course, I also commented that, "Was happy that she came to the talk by Prof. Martin Hendry that we organized in UPM on Gravitational Wave Astronomy. Little things like this make us happy". By saying so, it was merely thinking of how chain of events led to something good. In no way, I was claiming responsible for her success.

Perhaps being a surprise to many, the FB post went viral. It had more than 400 likes and almost 300 shares, the last time I look (not that I'm taking those indicators seriously).

Little did I know that it had also caught the media attention. Malaysiakini first came out with the news in both English and Malay. Next was Astro Awani and today it was the Star. All these reports quoted from my FB post (without my knowledge) and I would like to make it clear that I did not meet the press. Malaysiakini did email asking some questions but I hesitated to answer and had waited for my colleague's response. Finally I replied saying that they should get the news on the matter first hand from IIUM but I will be happy to share things I know on the physics of the discovery. I replied the same (to contact IIUM) to Astro Awani today when they had messaged me.

All the media attention on the matter is perhaps good to spur interest in fundamental science and help inspire younger generations. However I was also cautious about it since it can be manipulated and misinterpreted. True enough, some negative comments began to emerge. Some bordered on belittling the achievement, quoting the over a thousand authors in the paper (belittling the Malaysian's contribution is in a way belittling the rest of the individual scientist's contribution in the collaboration). Some hinted about people taking advantage of her success in this discovery (not sure what benefits I have from posting her story so far; I'm not from her institution, by the way). Some even had racial overtones like this comment:

"I bet if she is a chinese, the little thing that makes them happy will go down the drain ..."

Gosh, what were they thinking? Why the racial card? I would have done the same, irrespective of colour, creed or what have you, if there is news of a breakthrough and I found the person involved, had benefited from things that I have done. So, please do not drag me into these racial matters. For those who know me, they will see that I have students of many race and if they are good, I will them that they are good. If they think that they do not learn anything from me, I will tell them to find somebody else better (or harsher, buzz off) whether they are Malay, Chinese, Indian or international students. 

A student of mine told me that I should ignore the negative comments. These comments show how self-centred and fractured some of us are and it is increasingly difficult to ignore negative things like this. But I will keep the faith there is something good in all of us that we should all try to promote; we have to. I will take the good things from this affair.

I reiterate my FB post is simply meant to share some information not known to many. I did not expect it to go viral and least of all the media attention. From conversations with my colleague, Hafizah will probably shy away from all the publicity. In this sense, I think I owe her an apology for this unintended spur of publicity perhaps causing unnecessary extra pressure and extra attention diversions from her study. I would also like to move on, back to my own more serious work.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Between Labels: Mathematical Physics

Labels are often used as a convenience for quick identifications and sometimes to delineate boundaries. In this perspective, they are essentially tools (and not goals). With respect to labels, sometimes one finds a difficulty of explaining oneself of being a mathematical physicist. Are you in physics or are you in mathematics? My physics colleagues may ask the question why are you in an institute spearheading mathematical sciences, while my mathematician friends also may wonder why am I in the current position. My short answer is by accident.

In the past, I use to care about such labels but at this elderly age, I don't anymore and I have grown to respect all areas of sciences and art, each with their unique characteristics. In fact, being in the current position, it is necessary for me to care about all areas of mathematical sciences without favour. Of course, if pressed for an answer of what am I, I would say a theoretical physicist or even wider, a theoretical scientist because some of the systems that we study are not quite physical systems. I love both physics and mathematics because they are respectively grounded in 'reality' and a universal language to describe 'reality' both quantitative and qualitatively.

If pressed for my formal tertiary educational background, again you will find it ambiguous. My B.Sc. (Hons.) was from Department of Mathematical Physics, University of Adelaide. This department no longer exists and was fused with Department of Physics to become Department of Physics and Mathematical Physics (see history here) and now they are part of School of Physical Sciences. Note that one can also find mathematical physicists scattered in the School of Mathematical Sciences in University of Adelaide. Later I went to do Part III of Mathematical Tripos at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP). This is now considered as a Master of Mathematics/Advanced Study. For this, I recall a colleague saying that theoretical physics is just applied mathematics. I told him that in some circles, applied mathematics are considered different from theoretical physics and I mention DAMTP. After Part III, I joined the Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Durham for my PhD. Theoretical and mathematical physicists there, are divided into two departments, Physics and Mathematical Sciences; but there is an overarching centre, to which the theoretical and mathematical physicists from both departments belong to i.e. Centre for Particle Theory. Thus, with such background, personally I feel at home with both labels of physics and mathematics, if you ask me.

So what is really mathematical physics? And what is theoretical physics? Rather than try to define them here, I just would like to link to the wikipedia articles of mathematical physics and theoretical physics. For me, mathematical physics is a subset of theoretical physics, one which has more mathematical rigour. A paper in theoretical physics could dwell so much in conceptual matter, leaving little room for mathematics. The adjective of mathematical and theoretical is also used much in the same way as in mathematical and theoretical biology. The difference between theoretical and mathematical is not always clear cut and there may be a whole spectrum between these two labels. I would consider myself more of a theoretical physicist relying much more on intuition, while the late Prof. Twareque Ali for example is more of mathematical physicist.

Now is mathematical physics part of mathematics? Perhaps it is best to look at the AMS Mathematics Subject Classification. Mathematical physics used to be a subject on its own in the past (see here) but now it has gone under the various sections of "mechanics" in the 2010 classification (my own interest is in 81-XX, 82-XX, 83-XX). Note they also appear in the AIP Physics and Astronomy Classification Scheme (PACS). One can also check many mathematical topics are listed there. So the answer to the question at the beginning of this paragraph is in the affirmative.

Now the late Prof. Twareque once told me that it would be nice to have a centre of mathematical physics within the region. Indeed it would. However practically, I find that such idea is best to be part of the present institute. Theoretical physicists in the country are still a handful in number and we may not form a critical mass for such idea. Moreover, a centre that deals mainly with fundamental sciences may have difficulty in finding funding here. I also perceive proliferation of centres will not be a good idea (like proliferation of committees). Thus INSPEM would be best for us and it is a natural home for theoretical physicists particularly if we think of theoretical physics as an interdisciplinary subject, as I have told my younger colleagues.

Multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research areas are now commonplace as scientists address more complex problems. Mathematical sciences are not excluded from this trend. Even in mathematics itself, the use of concepts and techniques from different subdisciplines in a particular subdiscipline has become more common. Once my younger colleague mentioned to me that he feared that he is drifting away from physics as he gets more involved in complex networks research. I pointed out that much of physics research in the department has become more chemistry-like and engineering-like and thus there is no need for such concern. Boundaries of traditional disciplines have very much disappeared, though there will always be room for pure disciplines such as in pure mathematics as much as a language can be studied for its own intrinsic beauty.

Finally I have no qualms in being labelled a mathematician or non-mathematician. What matters is what we do. In many ways, I feel sorry for those who feel the need of feeling superior by subscribing to a particular label.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Get Well and Take Care Izzuddin

Yesterday, I had to take leave to attend to my youngest son who was about to be discharged from the hospital. My other half had to attend her clinic since Monday is usually a busy day.

My son had his left foot swollen and was unable to walk sometime last week. It began I supposed on Wednesday when he was involved in a marching session. He didn't complain anything the time he came home and it was already evening (his school session is in the evening) and we did not notice anything (I was also busy then). It was only the next day that he told his elder brother, Ihsan, that his foot is hurting and is visibly swollen. We told Ihsan to bring him to the clinic. There were some insect bite marks near his ankle and guessed that could be the problem. We searched for the bug in the bedroom but we did not find any; we thought probably he got it during his marching session. Antibiotics were prescribed, medical leave was given and we did not think much about it, hoping that the swelling will go away soon. Two days passed, the swelling seemed to get worse (see pic) and we got worried.

We decided then we have to take him to the hospital before it gets any worse. We do not want to make a fuss out of this (it's quite easy to belittle the problem) but knowing the medical history of our son, we are not taking it lightly. When he was quite small he had acute tonsilitis and was not responding well to antibiotics. At the time, I was foolish to be at a function of the university, leaving my son with my better half in the hospital. Should not have done it, particularly when the function could have proceeded without me. Learned my lesson. When he was a few years old, he broke his collar bone and we made extra effort to get him treated. When he was about six, he was again hospitalised for some bad viral infection (initially thought to be dengue). Later at about ten years old, he broke his arm (near the elbow). But it was when he was eleven, that I can't bear to see him suffer. A ping-pong table dropped on his leg and his leg was broken (see pics below).

I can't imagine the pain that he was going through then (try dropping a ping-pong table on one's leg if this is really a small matter). Thus, when we knew his leg was swollen, the first thing comes to mind, was it the same leg? It was not. Nevertheless, we knew that we should take the swelling seriously, get the ankle x-rayed to remove whatever other (sinister) possibilities and administer antibiotics intravenously since he was not responding well to the ones taken orally.

So we got him admitted on Saturday, last weekend at Columbia Asia Hospital in Seremban (the nearest to our home). It was only after giving him the antibiotic intravenously that the swelling is reduced. Thus by Sunday night, we were told that he can be discharged the next day. Despite there was a scheduled meeting, I made sure I was there to take care of the discharge process. Took leave and was thinking of going to the office just for the meeting but fortunately enough the meeting is postponed.

Izzuddin is now at home and on medical leave till the end of the week. He still walks with a limp but is much better. We hope he will get well soonest as he is missing a lot of classes. Given that what he has gone through, I can't help being overprotective and overconcerned sometimes. Do take care, Izzuddin.