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.


Kwong Chang Chi said...

If only the organization of EQUALS or other scientific events also received this kind of media attention...

Hishamuddin Zainuddin said...

I guess EQuaLS is just another event to many and is not associated to groundbreaking discovery. I don't mind the absence of publicity but surely wish it had support.

Kwong Chang Chi said...

I guess a lot of financial support comes only with sufficient level of publicity. At least people are noticing your facebook postings so I suppose it is a good start. :)