A Conference in Ghana: Fufu and Cluster Algebras

by Tarig Abdelgadir

beachghanaI love going to conferences. There are the maths: sharing your peculiar interests with others is always fun. Then there is the warmth of the mathematics community. Add to that the experience of visiting a cool new country with your math-friends and you have a winner.

This conference was no exception. It was set in the beautiful West African country of Ghana, in Biriwa, with the official title of Homological Methods in Algebra and Geometry. The goal of the conference was to expose young African mathematicians to expertise in algebra and geometry, because these areas of research are slightly unrepresented in Africa. We hoped that the conference would help them enter one of these fields if they wished.

The idea for the conference came about when Ulrich Krähmer, a good friend of mine and mathematician at the University of Glasgow, visited Trieste. We got talking over pizza, at Peperino of course. He told me how he goes to Ghana to teach at the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) every year. The students’ enthusiasm made a real mark on him; the three weeks he spends there are the most fun in his academic year. It was then natural to invite him to ICTP to speak to our head of math, Fernando Villegas, who suggested we apply for ICTP funding to organize a conference at AIMS-Ghana. The rest is history.

Dynamic Changes in Chinese Condensed Matter Physics: A Personal Journey

By Lu Yu

Reprinted with permission from the May 2016 issue of APS News, copyright American Physical Society

lu_1A half-century ago, modern condensed matter physics was almost nonexistent in China. During the past 30 years, especially since the beginning of the 21st century, the situation has changed dramatically. A number of outstanding young physicists from China with cutting-edge research achievements now have global recognition. How did this transition occur?

I was one of about 8000 Chinese scientists trained in the former Soviet Union for Diploma or Ph.D. degrees in the late 1950s and early 1960s. After returning to China, I was appointed a group leader at the Institute of Physics (IoP), the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), even though I did not have a Ph.D. The lack of experience and scientific exchange was partially made up by intensive self- and mutual education. A group of almost starving young people passionately studied and disputed the latest results in the literature (fortunately, scientific journals were available at IoP).

Unfortunately, that joyful time did not last long. In 1966 the Cultural Revolution broke out in China, and normal research and education activities were almost completely stopped. In 1969, I was sent to the countryside to do manual labor, to be “re-educated” by farmers. Research work was out of question under those conditions.

Nevertheless, something magical happened after I returned from the countryside in 1971 — “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” Here, the exchange of table tennis (ping-pong) players between the United States and People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the early 1970s marked a thaw in Sino-American relations that paved the way to a visit to Beijing by President Richard Nixon. Following the ‘Ping-Pong’ Diplomacy, China slowly started to open up to the West. C.N. Yang, T.D. Lee, and other American scientists of Chinese descent visited mainland China and gave lectures. We intellectuals “smelled” renewed opportunity to do research work again. There was no direct scientific exchange between the U.S. and China, but China was able to send a small delegation to attend the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Physicists.

Taking The Stage At Famelab

by Sananda Biswas and Luca Grisanti

Luca Grisanti wowing the crowd. Image credit: Imaginario Scientifico

Luca wowing the crowd
Image credit: Imaginario Scientifico

Famelab is a challenge issued to scientists, asking us to explain scientific concepts to the general public in only 3 minutes. Both of us – Sananda and Luca – took that challenge and participated in this year’s round of the competition in Trieste, held back in February. The design of the competition is simple: we were asked to choose two scientific topics to be presented either in Italian or English, taking no more than 3 minutes to explain each. The presenters that the judges and audience like the first time around advance get to the second round, and the top two then go on to the International Famelab competition. This chance to talk to non-scientists was a unique opportunity, one we were both excited for.

Getting ready to get on stage for the competition was a process. The first challenge was to decide our topics: we had to convey scientific messages in the form of a coherent story and at the same time, thrill the audience. Of course, the preparation process and overall aim for the event were slightly differently for each of us.

Sananda Biswas making chemical bonds come alive. Image credit: Immaginario Scientifico

Sananda making chemical bonds come alive
Image credit: Immaginario Scientifico

Most of Sananda’s preparation was a search for an appropriate topic and message from her research, as she chose to talk about her work. “My aim was to raise the audience’s curiosity about scientific research, especially the school students,” says Sananda. “It’s exciting to be able to explain my work to people, to use simple terms to help them understand, and hopefully make them interested in learning more about physics and science.”

Luca participated in Famelab last year, and had developed a couple of ideas sometime back to prepare for 2016. His main objective was to explain a concept or a mechanism that the public hardly ever understood, although they observed it in their everyday life. “Science is everywhere, and most people haven’t thought about why things are the way they are.” Making them conscious of the science means they can enjoy and wonder at how things work.

Science Diplomacy: From Theory to Practice

by Bernard Amadei

The historic Apollo-Soyuz docking. Image by NASA [public domain]

The historic Apollo-Soyuz docking. Image by NASA [public domain]

Science diplomacy is a term often used to describe how science can serve as a vehicle to create transboundary and cross-disciplinary partnerships through scientific collaboration. It can mean different things to different people, ranging from integrating sciences in diplomacy to integrating diplomacy in science. To that list, we should add engineering diplomacy, which is to engineering what science diplomacy is to science. There is indeed a need to define science diplomacy, as many young scientists and engineers seem to be interested in contributing to that field. Questions still remain as to how to train scientists and engineers in the fundamentals of diplomacy and how to train diplomats in integrating science, technology and engineering in their day-to-day decision making.

As an engineer, I may not know exactly how to define science (or engineering) diplomacy, but I certainly know how to recognize it when I see it and/or am part of it. Over the past 15 years, I have had the privilege to work with younger people (mostly engineers) interested in development issues. I have been in the field with many of them, have offered lectures, taught classes, and contributed to workshops and seminars on the role of engineers in addressing the many technical and non-technical issues that contribute to human development and poverty reduction in general. In 2001, I founded Engineers Without Borders (EWB)-USA and co-founded EWB-International. The former now has more than 16000 professional and student members in the US alone working on 600 or so projects in 45 countries. In 2004, I also started a program on Engineering for Developing Communities at the University of Colorado, which in 2008 became the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities. The center, which I co-direct, promotes integrated and participatory solutions to humanitarian development by educating globally responsible engineering students and professionals to address the problems faced by developing communities worldwide. In 2013 and 2014, I served as a US Department of State Science Envoy to Pakistan and Nepal, where I explored and initiated activities around Science, Technology, and Engineering for Development (STE4D).

All the aforementioned activities have shown me that science (or engineering) diplomacy is alive and well.

Closing the Physics Gender Gap

By Elizabeth Simmons

Dr. Simmons presenting at ICTP, 2015

 ICTP’s mission of affording scientists from developing nations opportunities to excel in physics and develop successful careers is laudable. A related area where ICTP is having a significant impact is in supporting women physicists around the globe.

In many nations, there are far fewer women than men in physics studies and careers. Across the US or Europe women typically make up only about 20% of professional physicists. In South Korea and Japan, the percentage is less than half this. A number of women from African countries whom I have met at ICTP have noted that they are the first to earn a PhD at or be employed as a faculty member at their institution.

What are the reasons for the gender gap? Some relate to family life: women are often expected to do most of the household and caregiving tasks within a family, even if they work outside the home. This makes it challenging to have enough time for studies or to advance in a career. Others relate to socialization: media stereotypes, peer pressure, and elders’ advice often discourage young women from being pioneers in traditionally “masculine” fields such as science or mathematics. Those entering these fields can find themselves isolated or excluded, with little access to mentoring and collaborative networks. Furthermore, a Global Survey of Physicists conducted by the American Institute of Physics in association with the IUPAP Working Group on Women in Physics has revealed that women physicists in every nation have less lab space and fewer opportunities for career advancement than their male colleagues (see follow­up articles from 2012 and 2015)

Living With Physics

This essay was originally published in One Hundred Reasons To Be A Scientist, a collection of essays published by ICTP in 2005. We’ll be periodically sharing some of the best essays from that book. Here’s the first one:

By Michael Berry

Berry2If you get your knowledge of science mainly from the TV, you might have the impression that it’s a weird activity, very far from what most people care about. But science isn’t remote at all: the world is connected in strange and wonderful ways. Think about this: many of you have a cd player. You can take it anywhere–on the beach, up a mountain, through the forests, in the deserts, at the North Pole, even–and listen to music reproduced almost perfectly. That wasn’t possible before in all of human history. In previous centuries, if you wanted to hear music, you had to go to live performances. But now we have this fantastic freedom that anyone, in any part of the world, can share the experience. In a way, it’s the ultimate democracy: making available to many what could previously be enjoyed only by a few. How has this come about? Strange as it seems: through a physicist’s dreaming.

Inside every CD player is a laser. Its light bounces off the bumps and pits on the disk, and electronics converts the signal into sound. The laser wasn’t discovered by accident. It was designed, by applying our understanding of waves and particles of light that comes directly from quantum physics, which gives our deepest understanding of the strange tiny world inside atoms and smaller. The laser works on a principle discovered by Einstein nearly a hundred years ago. It was pure theory–dreaming while you’re awake. He never dreamed that fifty years later other scientists would apply this principle to create bright pure light.