Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Hollywood often stereotypes scientists as absentminded professors. I certainly fit the bill. It is not unusual for me to forget my purpose in the midst of an activity. I leave my desk for my bookcase, only to have forgotten what book I needed during my journey of three paces.

I starting getting sick on Thursday and my symptoms peaked over the weekend. Early Saturday afternoon, I had a hankering for hot and sour soup to sooth my beleaguered throat, so I ordered takeout and proceeded to drive to the Emerald, one of our favorite Chinese restaurants in Pullman. I hastily jumped from my car and announced upon entering, "Hot and Sour soup for Mark." Immediately upon seeing the quizzical look on the face of the woman at the cash registered, I realized that I had ordered my takeout from the New Garden Restaurant.

I was a tad annoyed with myself because I had driven to the other side of town to the Emerald; but, I calmly drove through what is uncharacteristically heavy traffic for Pullman to New Garden. On my way, I dutifully pulled over as two fire engines whizzed by with their screeching sirens and obnoxious horns.

As I approached home, I realized that I had driven past the New Garden restaurant during the fire engine diversion, so, I made a U-turn, and was once again on my way. Upon arriving, I was horrified to see a line of 20 individuals at the cash register. It turns out that a party of 20 had decided on separate checks. I patiently waited for at least 15 minutes for the line to clear.

When I got to the front and announced my name, the young woman at the counter hectically searched for my order, and asked her colleague what had happened to the takeout bag that had been sitting on the counter. The coworker embarrassingly replied that she had given the order to another customer. So, I had to wait another 10 minutes to get my order filled.

On the bright side, my order would have been cold by the time of my pickup; and, since I had originally forgotten to request that they hold the shrimp, I was able to make this change. My wife was starting to get concerned over my long sojourn. But, relieved at my return and appreciative of the wonderful soup, we blissfully watched TV while nursing our illness. My only regret is that I had less time and energy than I needed to finish my work. So, I am now even more behind in my work then ever.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Science as art

Last May, I attended a conference in France at The Ecole normale supérieure de Cachan (ENS Cachan) to celebrate the 60th birthday of Joseph Zyss, a distinguished Physicist who has made many seminal contributions to the field of organic nonlinear optics. He is one of the founding scientists of this highly interdisciplinary field, which has moved into many new directions including such diverse topics as biomedical imaging and optical telecommunications.

In addition to many stimulating scientific talks, a special session was dedicated to Prof. Zyss's achievements. Several eminent scientists described his research contributions, and past students talked about the profound effect he has had on their careers and their lives.

Joseph Zyss is a multidimensional person who has many interests outside his profession; art and gourmet food. For fun, the organizers arranged for two invited talks devoted to the topics of art in science and the science of food. The culinary talk described the chemical basis for taste and touched on the interesting possibility of chemically synthesizing new foods.

The presentation on art was filled with reproductions of diverse art forms, making connections to science by juxtaposing works of art with mathematical structures and images of real physical systems. The talk ended with the implicit question, will art and science ever converge. My immediate reaction was that science is art.

Mathematics is the color pallet, clay, and media of Physics. While art pierces the soul through images and narrative to elicit emotion, science inspires a sense of awe and wonder directly through the intellect. A piece of art, such as the Pieta, represents a thing of beauty, exquisite in its execution -- recreating the artist's faith and passion. Science, in contrast, through its mathematical structure, encompasses all that is and can be in one grand yet simple set of theories that are intellectually beautiful, reflecting the ingenuity and imagination of generations of scientists.

A painting or a sculpture can recreate only one particular scene as a map portrays in miniature the geography of an area. In contrast, a theory represents everything. It is a kind of universal art that portrays all AND always. It has both predictive power and leads to a deep understanding of all things. To me, the most spiritually intense response comes from seeing the universe through the inner eye of science.

Professor Zyss is a scientist whose life has left and continues to leave many significant brush strokes on the fabric of science. Our ambitions draw each of us to the canvas in hopes that our mark will be permanent, tantalized by the beauty of what has already been revealed, in awe of the larger image that is slowly coming into focus. I am privileged to stand before the canvass, to marvel at its beauty, and to participate in humanity's efforts to leave a mark, even if my work gets covered over by those who follow.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The good, the bad, and the nasty

Just a few minutes ago I was preparing my lectures for my graduate mechanics class. As I often do, I was once again distracted, thumbing through the latter pages of the textbook - marveling at the simple beauty of physics. Even classical physics is rich with phenomena, yet it is unified by simple ideas from the calculus of variations. I yearn to savor the physics that lies before me, but awaken to reality with every ping alerting me to a new email. Sadly, life is filled with trivial tasks that keep me from my passions.

The last few days brought some good and bad news. As I had anticipated, Nathans' revised manuscript was accepted for publication. And, Shoresh's and Mark's JOSA B paper, which I had previously reported as being highlighted on the Optical Society of America's website, was the second most downloaded JOSA B paper in September 2010. See for a free download of the paper.

The paper that I had submitted to the Journal of Chemical Computation and Theory with David Watkins, over which I waged a full out battle with the referees, was finally rejected. I had expected this outcome from the outset, but thought it worth a try. My intention was to expose a new audience to our work, but apparently, this was not to be. Below is the strongest criticism of our paper.

"Professor Kuzyk seems strongly taken with his own work but is not sufficiently mindful of the work by others. Perhaps the most egregious example deals with the issue of neglecting the effect of vibronic interactions on the static first hyperpolarizability. As justification he cites two of his own papers, but totally misses the extensive literature in this field showing that the vibronic effect cannot be ignored. There are, in fact, many instances where the vibronic term is comparable to, or larger than, the pure electronic contribution. Hence, the maximum value he uses (derived only by considering electrons) could easily be breached without invoking any exotic systems."

The reviewer is referring to the fact that I cited one of our papers that shows that vibronic states do not contribute substantially to the hyperpolarizability. Undoubtedly, in heated debates, the parties involved often speak past each other. To do my part, I am once again plowing through this literature to understand the issue. However, I find it is a bit annoying that the reviewer did not point out an error in our logic, but rather made sweeping statements. My guess is that it is certainly possible for real molecules to have vibronic contributions that are large compared with electronic excitations; but, I believe that when a quantum system is designed to have a hyperpolarizability near the fundamental limit, the vibronic contribution will never be as large. And since we are always concerned with the physics of a system near the limits, I believe that we are correct.

It is interesting that the reviewer states that the limit could easily be breached in the presence of vibronic states. Since the best molecules ever measured fall a factor of 30 short of the limit, I do not believe that the reviewer's confidence is justified.

Though this exchange with the reviewer was one of the nastier ones I have experienced, I find it all to be trivial in the larger scheme of things. Happiness is most abundant when I am absorbed in Physics. At some point, I will rewrite this manuscript, taking into account these comments, and will see how our results mesh with the body of scientific understanding. I take solace in the fact that people are reading our papers. I see this review not as a devastating blow, but as an opportunity for new investigations. The last 6 years of my research on fundamental limits were ignited by a comment that was published on my 2000 PRL paper. In the process of accumulating evidence to show the criticisms wrong, I made many discoveries and gained deep insights. These kinds of experiences should not be seen as defeat, but as an invigorating start to a new chapter of research.