Saturday, September 24, 2016

A Journal Reviewer who gets the point

Even as a senior professor, I still cringe at negative reviews of my work.  It's nice to occasionally get a good one, as I did for a recent paper.  Below is the review:

Review of “A path to ultralarge nonlinear‐optical susceptibilities” by Mark G. Kuzyk

This paper is essentially a quantitative ‘stream of consciousness’ of its author as he ruminates about the origins of the nonlinear polarization in molecular‐scale objects.  Not every author could get away with this type of discourse, but this author is the pioneer of explorations of the fundamental limits of nonlinear optical phenomena and also the founder of the fundamental understanding of scaling phenomena in nonlinear optical molecules.  Those two achievements enable the author to precisely reveal the essential elements of what constitutes a good nonlinear optical structure in this most original of works.

The present paper brings together the two concepts of limits and scaling to attempt to understand how to build a quantum unit (a molecule, in the author’s nomenclature) whose absolute nonlinearity gets large with size when its intrinsic nonlinearity is constant with molecule size.  Many of the scaling concepts are familiar to readers of his papers, but this paper appears to be the first to step back and take a close look at the origin of nonlinearities as a function of the number of participating electrons.  The author carefully examines the quantum to classical transition and shows that the ideal system is made of microscopic units whose size falls just below the classical limit, provided they are properly arranged in the bulk form.  The author examines scaling in 1D and 3D, showing that the existence of transverse modes in 3D essentially removes electrons from participating in the nonlinear response, whereas in 1D, all electrons are longitudinal and can participate, provided they aren't otherwise tied up keeping the molecule bound together or living in shells close to the nucleus.  The emphasis on ‘participating’ electrons isn't new, but their use in scaling arguments appears to be original.

The author emphasizes the need to optimize the so‐called figure of merit (FOM) of a material, a macroscopic quantity related to the physics of a device or phenomena exploited in a device.  Recent work by Mossman et al. has shown how this works using resonant enhancement in a nonlinear material.  The fact that the present paper raises the issue of FOM optimization indicates an attempt by the author to shift the collective discussion of how to make better molecules from a focus on better nonlinearities to a focus on better materials.  The reviewer believes this paper may be referenced in future years as a turning point for the field of nonlinear optics materials research, much as the author’s 2000 Phys. Rev. Letter on the fundamental limits led to discoveries of the origins of large intrinsic nonlinearities, delineation of the required spectral properties of good molecules, and the invention of new materials.

In brief, it is an excellent, original piece of work and should be published.

My original pleasure induced by these strokes to my ego dissipated quickly.  I detest authority and would not want to become one.  Everyone should make judgments based on the strength of the evidence, not on the source.  I don't want to be given a free pass, nor do I want to impose my will on others.

Accepting the title of "authority" admits to stagnation.  I would rather be exploring new territories, filled with confusion but fueled by a drive to seek an understanding of the mysterious novelties that are just out of reach.  Answers always lead to more questions, like a series of stepping stones that stretch out in all directions with new branches emanating from each one.  The stepping stones in the distance are an alluring draw from the familiar ones that I have visited.  I yearn for them.

My many years as an academic have brought me great fulfillment in making discoveries and learning new things in the companionship of students and colleagues.  It keeps me young.  On the flip side, I am burdened by responsibilities that are neither intellectually stimulating, nor produce any tangible benefits to my constituents.  I stand at a crossroads where I am bursting with ideas that are squelched by inane responsibilities.  Should I abrogate my duties and dive into my research, whose benefits I know will surpass my selfish desire to learn, or should I continue to be a loyal soldier, obeying orders that restrain intellectual creativity?  It is a decision that I alone need to make, and nobody can lesson this burden.  The sense of responsibility yanks me away from my passions.

I dream of becoming a recluse for a summer or a semester, surrounded by my books and doing calculations on  huge sheets of paper, without interruption.  I would have to ignore funding agency reporting requirements that ask the same questions in 14 different ways, as if to excise every bit of creative energy.  I would have to ignore annual reviews that force me to waste a day filling in boxes in a form that neither makes the provided information clearer or more assessable.  I would have to ignore calls for proposals, which require researchers to come up with ideas that are not so novel as to not be appreciated, but beyond trivial so that reviewers can be impressed.  I would have to ignore nagging emails that incessantly interrupt my train of thought. Ignoring these activities would surely result in a loss of funding, something that the university expects, but that I wouldn't need.  Is it ethical to use the security of my tenure to ignore expectations that come from above even though I believe the university would potentially benefit more in the long run?

The guilt strings pull at my gut as I spend time writing this post, even though I'm at the keyboard at 9:00pm on a Saturday night -- a time that should be my own. Airing out these frustrations, I hope, will be an exercise that will help me sleep, which has not come easily these days. The obligations that are pulling me in multiple directions prevent me from making any meaningful progress in my most important activities, and I lay in bed in panic that I will miss important deadline.

The check list on my desk has many items that need attention.  I just finished grading and need to prepare for lectures, make up homework problems, and solve them -- a process that I find deeply fulfilling.  Next I need to reply to the reviewers' comments and revise my manuscript.  Rereading my manuscript, which is necessary when making revisions, is like visiting with old friends and rehashing the past, a pleasant pastime where ideas are batted around and reformed.  Since my colleagues were kind enough to review my manuscripts, I am ethically bound to act as a reviewer when asked.  Obligations of this sort are made many times each day, so I must accept the fact that I will never be able to withdraw fully.

Now it's time to get back to responding to the reviewers and revising my paper.  The details in the reviews suggest that both reviewers took the time to critically read manuscript and understood the nuances of my paper. For this I am grateful and excuse them for implying that I am an authority.  Since it's almost 10:00pm, it's time for me to complete this post.  No time to proof it.  No apologies.


  1. And I should get back to grading. Nice to get a blog post out though I bet!

  2. It's not the same university that we started in some 30 years ago, Mark.

    1. True. Though it may be hard to believe, it is much worse at other universities. I'm sure it also varies between departments and colleges.