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.

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