Scatterings image

Kurt Bernardo Wolf

In this installment of Senior Member Insights, we talk with Kurt Bernardo Wolf. Kurt is currently titular researcher in the Instituto de Ciencias Físicas, of the National University, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), at the Cuernavaca campus. Prior to the Instituto de Ciencias Físicas opening in 1985, he had worked at the Applied Mathematics institute in Mexico City, and lectured on mathematical methods in physics at the UNAM School of Science.
Kurt was the first director (1986-1994) of what is now the Centro Internacional del Ciencias, in Cuernavaca, which operates on the Trieste ICTP model to foster gatherings, meetings and extended stays for researchers in various scientific areas. In that capacity, he organized with various groups of colleagues a dozen international conferences, and served to edit their proceedings volumes, of which about half are in fields of optics. The Mathematical Optics project has received funds from UNAM and the National Council for Science and Technology.
Kurt’s current research focuses on the areas of theoretical optics, group theory and Lie algebras, Wigner distributions in phase space, and functions of discrete variables.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

As far back as I can remember, I was poised to become a scientist—whatever that meant for a sub-teen boy. My father was an engineer, so his birthday presents were a Meccano, a microscope, telescope, lenses, movie camera, and lots of encouragement from my mother too.
So after high school at 16, I headed to UNAM to become a theoretical physicist with a thesis on the nuclear energy levels of fluoride-19. This was a three-body problem within the oscillator shell model with interactions defined by symmetries and covariances under various transformation groups.
My graduate work was started at the Weizmann Institute for Science, Israel, from which I transferred to Tel Aviv University, Israel, to finish the degree with a thesis on particle and field theories. In the late 1960s, Israel was a good place to learn elementary particle physics and study the manifold faces of the wider world. After a postdoc in Gothenburg, Sweden, I returned to Mexico, where it was good to be with my colleagues again.

Have you encountered a period where you have been discouraged in your pursuit of science? If so, how did you persevere?

Approaching the 1970s, nuclear and particle physics were in turbulent flux, ever more dependent on experimental data to fit with shifting theoretical models; these were not fields to work in outside of large specialized research establishments. So I reverted to study the original symmetries of unitary and relativistic transformation groups during my postdoc and subsequent work in Mexico. It’s fair to say that in this environment and time, there was little pressure to engage in sharp-edge frontier problems or gadgets useful to industry—yet work in (apparently) abstract mathematics was sufficiently appreciated.
Later developments gave credit to their worth in basic understanding and applications in optics. Linear canonical transforms, formulated in nuclear physics by Marcos Moshinsky and Christiane Quesne in 1971, were developed in my first book on integral transforms for diffusive systems, eventually taking me to find its realization in several other fields.

Describe a major turning point in your career. Was there a specific action/accomplishment that got you there?

I was informed that at the University of Maryland, USA, Alex G. Dragt was developing open aberration algebras to design the circular accelerator that was intended for the failed superconducting supercollider project during the early 1980s. Then he published a paper describing third-order aberrations in lenses, which I explained with a neat theorem on factorization of canonical phase space transformations at hard interfaces. With this, I started to see canonical transformations all over the place, and that the perfect realm of optical models was indeed the best place, including geometric, wave/quantum and discrete (pixelated) interpretations of the various algebraic structures that I had visited before.

Of the conferences you’ve attended, has there been a stand-out topic/session/interaction that really stuck with you or changed your perspective?

I should admit to being rather reticent to engage in large conferences, where it is difficult to find close friends. Beside a few visits to OSA meetings and some optical institutes, my main membership has been with the International Colloquia on Group Theoretical Methods in Physics, as well as the Quantum Theory and Symmetries biannual meetings, in some of which I have participated as organizer. There, too, new trends and fads have the floor, some to follow, some not.

What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?

These days it is more common in the USA and Europe to enter industrial research laboratories, rather than academia. I have no experience in the former, but in the latter it is relatively simple to initiate correspondence with other scientists based on their writings, and at meetings to establish face-to-face conversations—these are quite important for most graduate students. Your mentor will also suggest likely places for postdoctoral stays with kindred researchers. And, of course, resilience to work with different methods and new fields may be needed.

What tips do you have for effective collaboration in your field?

In my field, being theoretical, one works best with a very small group of close colleagues: articles typically have no more than three or four authors, each one having contributed significantly to its content.  E-communication has simplified the task of international collaboration.

What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?

There is a genetic DNA imprint in the students of a congenial mentor, whose mathematical methods, intuition, poise, work ethics, and fields of interest are passed on to following generations. My own mentors, Profs. Marcos Moshinsky, UNAM, and Yuval Ne’eman, University of Tel Aviv, are duly acknowledged in my 2004 book Geometric Optics on Phase Space as my true teachers in the quest for symmetries. 

How do you define success in your career?

Not to go into philosophical minutiae, but: success is relative. Few of us expect to receive the Nobel Prize or become billionaires. Good standing among your colleagues, a loving family and an assured income probably conform best to success in my life. Numerous citations, articles that become classics, or theorems to your name may extend your success even beyond. 

How important are leadership roles in career development and how do you hone your leadership skills?

What is leadership? There are many kinds. I would point to the role of my dear mentor, Marcos Moshinsky, in forming the first generations of Mexican theoretical physicists, and having a soft but decided influence in the present academic community, the creation of supporting institutions, and with the prestige to have the president’s ear. Yet he never headed a state institution, and bureaucracy was utterly alien to him. Other colleagues, with other tacit abilities, have taken on directorships and become known for their organizational and political acumen. We must examine what our natural abilities are to know why, whom and where we can lead.

What advice do you have for young scientists who are about to interview for their first job?

I wouldn’t know; my only interview was unprepared, but went smoothly!

At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?

In Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita a similar question is posed to a famous writer, who answers thoughtfully: diventare immortale e poi morire (“become immortal and then die”). But before that, there are plenty of symmetries to be found in continuous or discrete, geometric or wave, classical or quantum models. Useful mathematical methods follow new phenomena discovered through increasingly sophisticated experiments, but mathematics also has a life of its own constrained only by the limitations of the human mind, which I have not really met.

If you weren’t in the sciences, what would be your dream career?

During the second half of the 1960s, and coinciding with my graduate studies in Israel, mostly stealing long vacations, I was able to hitchhike extensively in Europe, East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. The world was more naïve than it currently is, with local people simply curious at the few strange but innocent young backpackers jaunting around. At that time I had decided to try my hand as a National Geographic reporter. Although they ultimately would not have me, I did publish several article series in one of the main Mexico City newspapers. Had I succeeded, I would be doing some exciting documentaries, or perhaps winning another Mexican Oscar! But still, I think my best choice has been to work in science.