"If you were ever curious why Halley's comet returns every 75 years but it takes the earth only one year to go around the sun; or why the earth doesn’t abandon the sun and fly off to the edge of the universe", then you need to take theoretical physicist, Shaffique Adam's classes.
Professor of Physics and Head of Studies for Physical Science at Yale-NUS College, Singapore, Shaffique Adam talks to Ayesha Kohli, Editor, Creative Sparq about the "messy, nonlinear nature of science".
You describe your work as "institution building, teaching and research". What does that entail?
Institution building refers to my work in writing policy papers to shape the culture and procedures for the Yale-NUS college in Singapore. This partnership is less than 5 years old and focuses on reimagining how we can educate future global leaders. Being on the inuagural faculty, these policy recommendations are an important part of my remit.
In my classes, I currently teach Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics.
We also discuss Schrodinger’s Cat, and the non-local realism paradox proposed by Einstein.
As a researcher, I try to understand how electrons behave when you put them in unusual situations that include some combination of very low temperature, very high magnetic fields, very dirty backdrops, or when you squeeze them to live in two dimensions. This research has the possibility to revolutionise technology, which is why the Singapore National Research Foundation provided me with a prestigious fellowship and research funds. This is also why I am in Singapore.
According to a report by the World Economic Forum, Creativity will be the 3rd most required skill by 2020, following complex problem solving and critical thinking. What does “Creativity” mean to you in the context of your work in physics?
We make progress in theoretical physics in two ways.
The first is trying to do what has already been done before, but tweaking some details for the new context. But sometimes you need to draw inspiration from different contexts and put them together to make a completely new theory.
Maybe an analogy here is like Lego blocks. The lego pieces are bits of ideas or mathematics. Sometimes you just follow the instruction guide but changing all the red pieces to black ones. Other times you need to imagine something completely new. In some of the most famous historical examples, they had to sculpt the pieces too.
People often lament that current education systems tend to train our children to take exams rather than think creatively. As a practitioner and professor of science, what do you do in your classroom to help students build their creative confidence?
Absolutely. We insist that all our students engage in research at an early stage of their careers, where they see first-hand that the sausage-making process of generating new knowledge is not as neat and tidy as how it is later showcased in textbooks.
The analogy that comes to mind is training artists only by looking at paintings in the museum. One can admire their beauty (and test for minute details on what one can see), but I don’t think anyone can become an artist without the messy process of doing art.
You also need some context to understand the circumstance of the artist and the mood in society. Only then can you understand how and why the piece was put together and why it is important.
Similarly, I don’t think you can train the next generation of scientists without doing actual science.
In the classroom, I try to provide some context to explain why the theory came about when it did, and why and when it had the impact that it did.
Let's talk about Graphene - your area of research. Why is this material supposed to be revolutionary ?
The simplest way to describe Graphene is as the thinnest possible layer of graphite, with all its atoms arranged in a hexagonal structure on a single plane. This material was discovered in 2006 [just when I was finishing my PhD] and its discovery won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010.
To undertand the importance of Graphene, one needs to understand the way electrons interact with each other. There is a basic theory of electrons that all high-school students learn - i.e, electronics are charged particles and as per Coulomb's law- opposite charges attract and like charges repel. We can often get a way with a model where each electron only interacts or "talks" to its neighbour and not the other electrons. But when electrons talk too much to each other, this theory breaks down.
So what happens when the theory breaks down? The analogy of water turning to ice is often used. When the electrons talk too much, they freeze into a new more rigid structure. The liquid electrons conduct electricity, while the frozen ones do not. The transition back and forth from liquid to frozen electrons requires energy. Because the mechanism in this case harnesses the pre-existing Coulomb force, if there were a material that used this, it would cost less energy per switch; this could potentially usher in a new generation of technology.
And Graphene could be that material. Despite being just one atom thick, Graphene is incredibly strong, flexible, transparent, has the best electrical conductivity of any material and can be used in a vast array of applications including high speed electronics, data storage, LCD smart windows and OLED displays, supercapacitators, solar cells, electrochemical sensing to name a few.
How is your work adding to the knowledge on Graphene?
In my work, following my PhD, we proposed a theory [successful at that time] about how electrons moved about in Graphene - that they talked to each other, not directly, but in an echo chamber formed by other electrons and that the landscape of these electrons was like a hike through mountains, with peaks and valleys caused by material imperfections.
But soon after the 2010 Nobel Prize work, with the advent of better materials, our proposed theory was no longer working. The landscape of electrons in graphene was considered to be an undulating soccer field rather than a mountainous trek. So the question remained - how do you resolve how electrons talked to each other in the context of recent experimental physics results?
After 5 years of working on this problem, with financial support from the Singapore National Research Foundation and the Singapore Ministry of Education, we think we have a solution.
Picture this: When the room is quiet, the electrons can talk directly to each other. But when the chatter gets louder, they can no longer hear each other. But we also know that these same electrons will freeze with specific patterns once the volume gets too loud. So our theory argues that while electrons can’t talk directly to each other, each electron can talk with groups of other electrons that are getting ready to form the frozen pattern.
Our work was submitted to Science about a year ago (this is one of the top venues for communicating important results in all of science and technology). In a process called peer-review, it has been sent to anonymous world experts in the field who will take the time to check and validate the ideas. The initial response from these reviewers has been very favourable.
How is Artificial Intelligence affecting the way scientific research is being done these days, especially in Physics?
It is still very new. But each week there is a paper out on how Artificial Intelligence has been used to solve a problem in my field.
I also had an undergraduate student do a senior year capstone research project using machine learning to identify useful materials. At this stage it has the flavor of using very complicated pattern recognition to reduce the time it takes to do the data generation and analysis.
And the funding agencies have taken note. Just last month A*STAR [Agency for Science Technology and Research in Singapore], launched a new funding framework for using Artificial Intelligence to reduce the time it takes for material discovery, design and application from the typical 10 year cycle to a 3 year cycle. But I think it is still a long-way off (if ever) for computers to be writing new physics theories.
Please share your perspective on Singapore’s scientific research scene. What kinds of areas is Singapore investing in and why?
On the one hand, relative to other countries, Singapore spends among the highest ratios of GDP towards research and innovation. But Singapore has a tiny population and so while the per-capita amounts are high, the actual dollar amounts are rather modest. The country realizes that it can not compete on everything. It picks a few areas where it can punch above its weight, and then abandons vast areas of science and technology.
Some areas of Singaporean prominence in physics include 2D materials (my area of expertise); quantum information and technology; nanophotonics (coupling of light to nano-materials); and solar energy conversion. In other areas of the scientific research scene the relevance to Singapore is more clear: the Cancer Science Institute focuses on strains of cancer that are prevalent in South-East Asia and do not get much attention from the U.S. National Institutes of Health; or the Earth Science Observatory focuses on obtaining environmental data from this part of the world.
What role do you believe that the arts has played / can play in the world of science and technology ?
Also, many actual technological devices like the iPhone and 3D printers were first imagined in science fiction. And many researches are still trying to make jet-packs and light-sabers.
If you had to suggest a government policy intervention involving the “creative industries” that could make a positive impact on society in your view, what might that be?
It is hard to be creative when you are constantly worried about how society will receive your work, and when you spend most of your time imagining the consequences to your future if you land flat on your face. The details can vary, but free experimentation is the oxygen for the creativity fire.
What do you do to fuel your creativity?
While I don’t have a perfect formula, here are some elements that I think of that help me with my creative solutions. I try and change my routine. I often write my papers in coffee shops. I like travelling. The jetlagged state during long-haul flights often inspires new ideas. Attending talks at conferences helps me connect the dots.
The best ideas often come when I am doing something unrelated to the task at hand.
Then there is hard work: when I was in graduate school having finished a paper, I remember thinking that the paper took more than a year to complete, but all the creative insights happened in one afternoon when I wasn’t even at my desk. I remember thinking to myself: If I could figure out the magic, I could then work just one day a year with the same outcome! But I soon came to the realization that it was one year of hard work ruminating over the problem that was the true fuel for the one afternoon of creativity. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts.
About The Interviewer:
A brand storyteller, Ayesha Kohli is the founder of communications consultancy, Sparq Communications and the Editor of Creative Sparq. She launched the site in 2017 to showcase different perspectives on creativity and creative thinking. Passionate about people, culture, education, leadership, technology and trends, she loves championing emerging talents and new businesses.