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 ....

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