Hugo Thienpont and daughter Astrid in Venice, Italy.
This is an extended version of the interview that appeared in the April issue of oemagazine.
Hugo Thienpont is director of research in the Laboratory of Applied Physics and Photonics at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Brussels, Belgium. He is a symposium chair of SPIE's Photonics Europe symposium this month in Strasbourg, France, along with Giancarlo C. Righini, Istituto di Fisica Applicata Nello Carrara/CNR (Florence, Italy), and Patrick Meyrueis, Université Louis Pasteur (Strasbourg, France). He was interviewed for oemagazine by Rich Donnelly.
SPIE: How did you first become interested in science, and optics in particular?
HT: I think it's not a unique story. I grew up in an age where you had fantastic new inventions, the age when technology really started. I'm very happy for that. Some people say "I would like to have lived in the Middle Ages or in the Roman times," but I think I was born at the perfect time. It was the age of space exploration, transistors and semiconductor technology. It was the age when lasers were invented. As a boy, of course, on TV there were all these extremely fancy science fiction programs like Star Trek, and UFO, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. There you saw all of these technologies. Of course they were not there yet, but you saw what the possibilities were. Usually they were used in warfare, and that I didn't like, but still you could see the power of technology. You could see that there was a huge future waiting - I think that gave us the urge to go in that direction.
As a youngster you try to build some of these things, and then you see that you lack the skills, the technology, and especially the physics behind it - or the chemistry, or mathematics, and you feel helpless. The only way to do something about it is to study well at school. Some of the time, I must honestly say, some of the courses were absolutely boring. It was not because the courses themselves were boring, but sometimes the teachers were not able to convey the message. It was only when I went to university that everything really opened up. I had some excellent teachers, including one called Professor Roger Van Geen - this guy was opening up a completely new direction called applied physics. Of course now everyone is familiar with it, but at that moment he was one of the very first in Europe to come up with this idea. So rather than becoming a civil engineer, I became an electrical engineer with majors in applied physics and optics. There we were able to work with lasers and do everything we ever dreamed of.
SPIE: Do you feel like the reality has equaled your childhood fantasies of what it would be like?
HT: Oh, reality is way beyond what I ever dreamed of, and that's nice. It's only the very fancy things from science fiction that haven't happened. Still, they are happening, but at a much slower pace. For example, Mars. It's fantastic that people are still excited about finding evidence of water or ice on Mars. Those are the headlines today, but 40 years ago it seemed that we could be invaded at any moment by people from Mars. That's the only thing - we haven't gone as deep into space as I would have liked, but that will come. I think all the rest has passed my personal expectations, and the expectations of many, many scientists.
SPIE: Please tell me about your position as Director of Research.
HT: I started 20 years ago as assistant professor of research but in a department where there was absolutely nothing, zero. It was called the department of laser physics, but what was not there was a working laser. Everything dated from 1960. I found myself in 1980 to 1985 in a lab where everything was extremely old fashioned, and nothing was working, so we had to start from scratch. Gradually we went through the process of writing projects and hiring people. It took a long time. Today we have about 40 researchers working on photonics. I like the idea that we are a team, and the team has gradually built up. We have a critical mass now, which is something I think is an important achievement. Many directors of research will say they wish they were still in the lab, but that's not my case. I love the work in the lab, and I'm still in the lab, because all my people are in the lab. Every day I do a tour of the lab and discuss the work with them. So I'm following their work, definitely. The nice thing is that I know why I'm writing projects, and why I'm thinking all the time about new strategies, and how we should tackle this or that problem. I discuss it with them, and that's the nice thing with respect to my job. I'm not frustrated that I had to leave the labs, and I'm still very excited whenever we can buy new equipment!
SPIE: Which branches of optics interest you the most?
HT: Photonics, not just optics, interests me the most. After all, I'm an engineer, so the applications of optics are extremely important, not only the science behind the optics. We have been working for about 50 years now on optical interconnects, how to replace electrical wires with optical wires over very short distances. That means optics in computing and bringing data to the silicon microprocessor chips. That has been my interest for many years. Today, there are lots of spinoffs of that work: micro-optical components that might be extremely important in biophotonics; we have developed in-house technologies like deep proton lithography, which is a kind of generic technology for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optical plastic components. As a general answer, I would say as long as it's photonics I'm extremely interested. Especially the multidisciplinary aspects of photonics, because it's an enabling technology. Photonics as a kind of goal on its own doesn't mean anything. But it's an enabling technology that allows you to work with civil engineers, with physicians, with virtually everybody. As long as you can make optics serve them, I think it's good.
SPIE: How established is photonics research in Belgium?
HT: Belgium over the last 20 years has been focusing a lot of effort on optics and photonics, mainly at the universities - of course at our university in Brussels, but also the university of Ghent. The nice thing about all the research is that we have networking going on between several different universities. Everybody respects each other's topics, so we're very complementary. We don't waste too much money on buying the same equipment. We discuss these things, and we open up our labs for each other. It took us some time, but today instrumentation is so expensive that there's only one way out, and that is collaboration. There is a network of excellence in Belgium that brings together all the universities that have something to do with optics and photonics. There's a real willingness to collaborate, and of course Belgium is so small, it doesn't make sense to exchange people the way you might in the United States. In Belgium we're talking about 50 or 100 kilometers; it's nothing. You take a train and you're at the other university. It's a different way of collaboration. We're very strong in optics, but what we would still like to see is a kind of center for optics and photonics. In Belgium we have the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (IMEC). It focuses on VLSI and ULSI electronics. I would like to see a center, maybe a virtual center, that would be the heart of everything that's going on in Belgium with respect to optics and photonics. We're working on it now with the University of Ghent, but we need some political support.
SPIE: Does the educational system encourage science and math studies?
HT: As a general feeling, after discussing it with lots of my collegaues, I must say that the number of young people who study science is definitely not increasing in Europe. It's declining. It's a big worry. We have tried many things to do something about it. We have tried to inform students from the secondary schools onward how nice it is to work in science and technology. It doesn't seem to work out well. We're constantly wondering why it is that science and technology is no longer appealing to these people. My daughter, for example, she's 14 years old and she has courses on digital electronics. In my time I had to spend my own small amount of money to travel to Brussels to buy some digital gates and try to put them together on a printed circuit board. In her case, everything is there. She likes it, but she's the only one in the whole class - all the rest see it as a burden. So why is it a burden? I don't know. I have asked my daughter - she doesn't know. It's far more fancy to buy audio CDs or to play a game on a computer, but why it all works so well, what's the technology behind it, they don't care. For them technology is something that comes off the shelf, and you can buy it with your pocket money. They don't ask why, it's just there. Technology is no longer this adventure, this challenge. Maybe that's the reason.
Look at what the Hubble did. You can find everything on the Internet, all the nice galaxies that they are photographing. There is a map of the universe now. But they don't seem to care. Maybe it's not their fault, it's us who have to try to teach that in a much more exciting way, to show them that there are still challenges, and quite a lot, maybe more than ever before. We should try to convey that message, but in a completely different way than we have done until now.
SPIE: What about cooperation in the new Europe - is it different?
HT: For our group it started about 10 years ago when the European Commission put a lot of effort into student mobility with the ERASMUS project and with the SOCRATES project now. I still remember the first students that came to our lab from France, from Spain. It was all very strange. There was a language problem, but gradually we came together. We had parties and shared each other's culture. The Spanish were making tortillas, and we served our beer - they didn't know that we had lots of good beer in Belgium. Everybody tried to explore each other's culture, and we were learning to work together in the labs. And this was only 10 years ago! Today half of my group comes from outside Belgium. We speak English as our everyday language. It has been changed in a dramatic way, and I must say that the commission has been doing an absolutely fantastic job there. There are plenty of ways to collaborate and to exchange people within Europe. The only thing that could be changed is the amount of money the students receive as a travel grant. That could be increased.
Every year we have 10 to 15 students come from abroad for six months doing their diploma work in the group, and then they go elsewhere. Then you may see after 10 years that some of them are coordinating a European Commission project, and you can really see Europe growing. In the beginning I was rather skeptical; I didn't see that exchanging students would be a good starter for changing Europe, but I was wrong.
SPIE: Please comment on the importance of the Photonics Europe symposium. What are your hopes for this first symposium, and future ones?
HT: I must say that I am extremely grateful that SPIE gave us the opportunity to conceive something completely different. People might say that Photonics Europe is a copy of Photonics West, but that's not the case at all. We tried to give it a European flavor. Secondly, we didn't want the fragmentation of Photonics West. That's not a criticism, but there are so many conferences that you are frustrated when you get up in the morning and you see all of these fantastic talks at the same time. You have to make a choice. So we tried to restructure the whole thing, and we came up with about 17 topics that cover the whole photonics area rather well, We tried to choose them so that they coincide with the strategic objectives of the European Commission in their Sixth Framework Programme. I think this is what made the success of SPIE's Photonics Europe - although the conference still has to happen. But we know that there are about 1000 contributed papers, which is way beyond our expectations. I know that SPIE took a large financial risk - not only a financial risk but a risk in general - to have this meeting in Europe. I think they did a very nice thing by giving the Europeans the opportunity to design and define their own conference. This is something that I think only SPIE would do, and the whole of Europe should be very grateful for this opportunity. We carefully selected the chairs, and they did a great job. We have an excellent advance program, with special events focusing on the Sixth Framework, and the timing is perfect, because the Sixth Framework will really start this year. And in two years' time, all the projects will be at full speed, so for Photonics Europe 2006 we'll have lots and lots and lots of results - not only scientific results, but results of networking. So I'm extremely excited, and I'm looking forward to April.
SPIE: Beyond the symposium itself, what do you think SPIE can do to serve the European community?
HT: I've been thinking about that question quite a lot, and the only thing I can come up with is that SPIE should do what SPIE does very well. For example, we're extremely happy with their magazines and journals. I know it may sound dull, but that's what people expect. Every month, I expect the oemagazine. And in one hour's time, I know what's happening. This is extremely important. Optical Engineering is a very good publication and lots of engineers are very devoted to this journal. I know now about the Digital Library, which is a very nice initiative, and it's extremely important for European industry. They want to have access to SPIE papers, but in a simple and efficient way. I think that SPIE is constantly trying to improve what they are already doing well, and that is appreciated. So SPIE is serving the Europeans well, because their policy is not an aggressive policy, it's gradual. It's not like "We are conquering Europe, boom!" No. They ask us first. The question is not "how can we invade Europe," but "how can we serve Europe?" And not only the SPIE members, because you only will get members if you serve Europe, then you will get members. I like their gradual approach, their professional approach, and the fact that they ask our opinion first.
SPIE: What do you like to do in your spare time?
HT: Well, in all honesty, I don't have much spare time. I didn't have Christmas holidays, for example, I worked on lots of projects. But as long as my work is my hobby and my hobby is my work, it's fine. I think I'm very fortunate, I'm able to meet lots of very interesting people and try to make the best of that. Nice restaurants from time to time, a good glass of wine with my colleagues and friends, because lots of my colleagues are my friends. The unfortunate thing is that I don't have much time to see some of my old friends from years ago. From time to time we meet and do some horseback riding, etc. But unfortunately I think those days are mostly gone. It doesn't mean the friendship is no longer there. It's exactly the same as it was 10 or 20 years ago; it's only that we don't see each other on a daily basis. But I think they understand. We have a high responsibility, and we have to do what we have to do. We have to make sure that young people get their opportunities as we got our opportunities 20 years ago. That means that there's not much spare time. And if I have spare time, I try to read a good book - and a good book means a book without formulas, without science, without technology. In that case I go back to the Middle Ages, to the Roman or Egyptian times, adventure, these types of things. A good glass of wine and a good book is the best I can afford.