Laying A Sound Foundation

An accomplished composer, Professor Bernard Tan has also played a vital role in Singapore’s pioneering space efforts via the Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing.

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AsianScientist (Sep. 18, 2015) – Both science and music found a champion in Goh Keng Swee. Few are aware that Dr Goh, better known as the architect of Singapore’s economy and a pioneer of national defence, also sparked the formation of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). A lover of classical music, the then deputy prime minister remarked in 1973 that it was “a scandal” for Singapore not to have its own professional orchestra.

Five years later, Dr Goh asked Bernard Tan, a young physics professor at the University of Singapore, to draft the SSO’s first budget. Professor Tan, today one of Singapore’s most frequently performed composers, has juggled science and music throughout his career. He even served as acting head of the university’s department of music from 1977 to 1987 while concurrently with the department of physics.

In the realm of science, Professor Tan was instrumental in setting up key facilities such as the Singapore Synchrotron Light Source (SSLS)—the largest single research machine in Singapore—and the Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing (CRISP), the country’s first major foray into space technology.

“Your generation cannot imagine how primitive research was in the 1970s before we had all these facilities!” Professor Tan exclaims. “In a sense, people like me and all the others who went into administration helped to build up the research infrastructure. But our own research suffered as a result—we are the lost generation.”

From accidental lasers to synchrotrons

Professor Tan completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Singapore and then did his PhD at Oxford University on a Commonwealth scholarship. He went on to serve as vice-dean of the science faculty at the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 1980-85 and subsequently dean in 1985-97.

“The trouble is that I entered university administration at a relatively young age,” Professor Tan says. “I became a vice-dean when I was only 37 and stepped down when I was 54—so we’re talking about 20 years of my research career wiped out from that point on. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody!”

Part of the problem, he says, was the immature research landscape—rudimentary lab facilities and a shortage of expertise.

“If you want to be in university administration, you need to have a lab with reliable post-doctoral fellows or even a colleague who works with you,” he says. “I tried to carry on individually with no collaborators. Even with that handicap, I still managed to produce ten PhD students—some supervised jointly with colleagues—which is not too bad!”

One of Professor Tan’s early accomplishments was building Singapore’s—and possibly South-east Asia’s—first laser in the late 1970s. Armed with barely S$2,000 (S$4,500 in today’s dollars) and home-made glassware, he built a carbon dioxide laser together with Tan Kuang Lee, Ong Phee Poh and Tang Sing Hai at the University of Singapore’s physics department

The light produced by a bulb is non-coherent, with its photons being emitted randomly in all directions; its intensity dims as it travels from its source. In contrast, laser light is characterised by its coherence, meaning that each photon of light is exactly in sync with all the other photons being emitted, producing a focussed beam of light that is able to maintain its intensity over long distances or cut through metal.

The first few times he and his team turned the laser on, nothing happened. Then one day they noticed that some plastic in the laser’s path had melted. Lasers using carbon dioxide as the lasing medium produce invisible infrared rays. They had been lasing all along; they just didn’t know it.

“Looking back now it was very dangerous because it could have easily blinded us,” he admits. “But such was the state of how we did things back then.”

Two decades later, Professor Tan was on to bigger—and much more expensive—things. During the last few years of his deanship, he focussed on raising funds for the largest single research machine in Singapore, a Helios synchrotron for the SSLS.

“After a lot of effort and strong support from NUS Vice-Chancellor Professor Lim Pin and the NSTB (National Science and Technology Board, predecessor of today’s A*STAR), we finally managed to get nearly 40 million dollars [S$54m in today’s dollars] to set up the synchrotron, which was commissioned in 1999,” he says.

The SSLS, like other electron synchrotrons around the world, produces exceptionally intense beams of infrared, ultraviolet and X-ray light by accelerating electrons around a curved magnetic ring up to an energy of 700 MeV. The most powerful electron synchrotron dedicated to the production of X-rays and other electromagnetic radiation is SPRING-8 in Japan which has an electron beam energy of up to 8 GeV. The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the largest and most powerful proton synchrotron in the world at 7,000 GeV, is 10,000 times as powerful as the 700 MeV SSLS.

Nonetheless, SSLS synchrotron radiation allows researchers to “see” structures at the atomic level with unprecedented detail, and has become an invaluable tool in a wide range of disciplines. Materials scientists, for example, have used the SSLS for nanofabrication, while biologists use it to image cells or even viruses.

Putting Singapore on the map and in space

Professor Tan is also particularly proud of CRISP, a satellite ground station that collects data and images from remote sensing satellites 2,300-3,000 km around Singapore. Quick to credit Lui Pao Chuen and Lim Hock as the driving force and first director of CRISP respectively, Professor Tan serves as chairman of CRISP to this day.

CRISP was set up in 1992-93, just in time, as it turned out, to monitor Singapore’s first haze in 1996. The haze, which has occurred almost annually since, is the result of forest fires in neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia.

“We were in a position to capture images of the haze, revealing its true extent,” he says. “Our images of the 2004 Asian tsunami, which could not have been obtained any other way, similarly helped with disaster relief.”

While technologies like SSLS and CRISP were necessary to grow Singapore’s nascent scientific culture, being connected to the wider scientific community was equally, if not more, important. Here too, Professor Tan has played a role, helping Singapore become the second node in Asia (after Japan) to join BITNET, a US university computer network, in 1987.

“Before that, access to the Internet and email was intermittent. BITNET was significant because it gave us a 24-hour gateway to the Internet,” Professor Tan recalls.

His main motivation for joining BITNET was to make Singapore more attractive to potential hires.

“We always found it difficult to recruit good scientists from overseas because they were reluctant to come to the other side of the world and be isolated from the rest of the scientific community,” he says. “To me, BITNET was a great way to mitigate that sense of separation.”

Thankfully, the NUS administration under Professor Lim and Thio Hoe Ting, director of the NUS Computer Centre, supported his vision. The university established sporadic contact with the City University of New York BITNET node by late 1986. The first official email was transmitted via a 4,800 bps dial-up link on January 13, 1987, marking the official date that NUS joined BITNET. (By comparison, a modern 1 Gbps broadband connection is more than 200,000 times as fast.)

Now to build a heritage

Despite the modern facilities and ample funding Singapore’s scientific establishment now enjoys, Professor Tan nonetheless feels that there is much to be done for science, particularly in terms of our scientific culture.

“You may say that our publication record is very good, but in terms of people being able to think and argue and talk to their peers—not only in their own departments but other departments as well—I think we still have some way to go in fully developing that kind of intellectual climate,” he says.

“It’s not about being clever; what I mean is being able to accept criticism and discuss differing views with our peers.”

While acknowledging there are no easy answers in this quest, Professor Tan feels that giving local scientists a larger say in science policy is one important way forward.

“Do Singaporean scientists, even the senior ones like myself, have great input in the science policy of the country?” he ponders. “To be honest, I’d have to say not enough. In any field which you are trying to build a heritage in—whether it is scientific research or art and music—if you don’t put your bets on Singaporeans, you can never build an indigenous capability. It’s as simple as that.”

Professor Tan also hopes that Singapore will become a nation that leads the world in its understanding and application of science and technology not only as applied to the needs of mankind, but also for the sake of satisfying man’s curiosity about the world.

“I’d really like to see Singapore become a catalyst for creativity because as we’ve said so often, all we have are our human resources,” he says. “I believe those human resources reach their fullest potential in creativity, and that’s best expressed through science, technology and the arts.”

This feature is part of a series of 25 profiles, first published as Singapore’s Scientific Pioneers. Click here to read the rest of the articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Bryan van der Beek.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Rebecca did her PhD at the National University of Singapore where she studied how macrophages integrate multiple signals from the toll-like receptor system. She was formerly the editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine.

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