A Conversation with Professor Yuri Kivshar

Sitting in the busy Fellow’s Café, Professor Yuri Kivshar describes how he came to settle in Canberra. He had received several job offers from a variety of European countries as well as one at the ANU. For his wife, a botanist, the prospect of living in Australia was an attractive one. So on the 8th of June in 1993, they began a new chapter of their lives. The plan was to return after one or two years. Sydney was never an option; it was too noisy and not the best place to raise children. He laughs that he’ll never forget the infamous Canberra cold in his early days here. Twenty years later, and Professor Kivshar is a distinguished researcher, and head of the Nonlinear Physics Centre. His interest in science began a long time ago, and he has more than 800 articles published in peer-reviewed journals to date, as well as an infectious sense of humour.

He remains the only academic at the ANU to have won two Federation Fellowships.
“I was trained as a theorist, never assumed I’d do an experiment… The Fellowship was an amazing opportunity to change from theorist to experimentalist in some sense, which had been my dream, because physics is experimental science and producing theoretical models, you still want to somehow verify that.”

Choosing this career path was not a difficult decision. “It combined maths and physics very well. Basically, it was very natural to continue in that direction.” After asking how many projects he’s involved in, he explains that he has a department of about 30 people, and, more recently, a second department in Russia of about 40 people, laughing that this must mean at least 50.

What’s really fascinating is we are doing a lot of optics, basically nanophotonics, science about light, linear and nonlinear physics, a lot of things, [and] most recently with some more exciting things which we call ‘magnetic light’. Electromagnetic fields have both electric and magnetic components, however the magnetic component is hidden at the optical frequencies. Light oscillates at a very high frequency and for this frequency, there’s no magnetism. Magnetism dies a long, long way below.

So the magnetic features of light have never been observed. But we are now working with special structures, which we’ve created by nanotechnology. Imagine you have a structure that consists of very small ‘units’, and each of them resonates with a specific magnetic response. These structures have features much smaller than the wavelength of light, and they ‘force’ the light coming through them to acquire magnetic properties, which is most impressive.

Nature itself does not assume that at all, but we can change properties of waves and materials by just engineering these structures. That’s what we call such unusual structures, metamaterials. ‘Meta’ in Greek means ‘beyond’, so we construct materials beyond the properties given by nature.”

Professor Kivshar believes that the best part of the ANU is its structure. Having actual research schools means that his department can get students motivated to do research. “Students get a chance to talk to people who are basically on the forefront of original research. Usually people who teach are not as advanced as people in academia. That’s the difference. If the structure is destroyed, then we won’t be better than say Melbourne or Sydney… [the] ANU’s policy should still target not only getting more students, but better research.

I’m happy to teach, but I should not be overloaded… You can’t do research if you’re a fulltime teacher, it’s very hard… If you start travelling you can’t teach efficiently, because for example, conferences are at different times, travel itself takes days to get there and back, it’s not simple.”

I had one last question to ask, and that was whether or not he watches The Big Bang Theory, being a physicist. He pauses before he explains why he doesn’t. “Usually I’m quite sceptical of all these efforts to simplify things… When you make science popular, you see a lot of cheating, if you try to present things that are never ever simple… Things are very tough, science is time and money-consuming, it’s deep.”

As Professor Kivshar gets ready to leave, he kindly pays for lunch and offers to send me some popular articles on metamaterials. “It’s a very interesting area, it’s basically changed our thinking in some direction, [when we look at] what was done by Maxwell, Faraday and these people, somehow this a new wave of thinking.’

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