WHO: Dr. Adi Bulsara. He grew up in Bombay, India, in a very conservative society. He’s a part of the last few remaining members of the Zoroastrian religion (although non-practicing), an ancient religion dating back to 550 BC but, sadly, dying out today. His family wanted him to be a doctor, but when Adi was a senior in school, he had a teacher whose passion for physics and mathematics, he said, “Spoke to me.” The rest, as they say, is history.
TITLE: Distinguished Scientist/Technologist (ST) for Nonlinear Dynamics for the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, Pacific (SSC Pacific). He received his Ph.D in physics in 1978 from the University of Texas at Austin, working in the Center for Statistical Mechanics, headed by Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine.
MISSION: To find solutions. More specifically, to find physics-based solutions for some important and contemporary questions. Quite simply, Dr. Bulsara is helping us to understand a lot of unexplained phenomena and generating new ideas that can lead to frontline technical advances. One calculative epiphany at a time.
Tell me a little about yourself and your positon, please.
“I began working as the only scientist in the field of nonlinear dynamics at SSC Pacific in 1983. With a specialization in the physics of nonlinear dynamical systems in the presence of noise, I was one of the early proponents of the stochastic resonance (SR) phenomenon. Drs. Andre Longtin, Frank Moss, and myself were the first (in 1991) to propose SR as an underlying mechanism in the processing of information by sensory neurons in the presence of background noise.”
Stochastic resonance? What is that?
“SR is a very delicate (and often misunderstood and misused) physical effect wherein background noise in a nonlinear dynamic system can actually enhance the system/sensor performance under some specific physics conditions. It is widely understood, now, that there is background noise in the central nervous system, however sensory neurons are able to exploit SR (and probably other phenomena which are not, yet, understood) so that the noise actually becomes an integral part of the system dynamics and not, simply, a laboratory curiosity.”
So you work with a lot ‘noisy systems’, so to speak.
“Following this work, I concentrated on the physics of noise-mediated cooperative phenomena, of which SR is just one example, in coupled arrays of nonlinear dynamic devices e.g. neurons, superconducting quantum interference devices, and other nonlinear devices, including room temperature magnetometers, electric field sensors, and the so-called ‘channelizer’, a massively parallel spectrum analyzers on a chip. Our work on SR in arrays of nonlinear dynamic elements was featured on the cover of Physics Today in 1996 and led to my being awarded SSC Pacific’s highest recognition, the Lauritsen-Bennett award. Currently, this work (along with other discoveries by the Advanced Dynamics Research group that I headed) has led to a compact, cheap and very sensitive room temperature magnetometer that has been evaluated by the ground forces as an intrusion sensor, among other possible applications (e.g. swimmer detection, undersea surveillance).”
What is your role in developing science or technology within SSC Pacific?
“SSC Pacific has provided me with a lot of opportunities, and my career has been very rewarding. My primary job at the Center is to conduct research and I’m given the freedom to identify my own areas of research, taking care to select topics and areas that will benefit the Navy, typically in the long term. I’m very excited about all the projects I’m currently working on. One is the nonlinear vibrational energy harvester that uses very sensitive active materials. I am also working on a chip-scale magnetometer, an exotic-materials project that involves a lot of fabrication, some biomimetic sensor work, and an idea to design a nonlinear circuit to efficiently collect energy from vibrations and make the circuit work like a ‘spiking’ neuron.”
“Part of my job is attracting and picking really good people who will be the future of the Center. I’m provided with quite a bit of autonomy to identify science and technology tangents and projects that I think are critical to our warfighters’ defense. In addition, I mentor SSC Pacific’s junior personnel and look out for really good people in academia (mainly with doctoral degrees) who would be a great addition to the command.”
What is the goal/mission of your work at SSC Pacific and what do you hope it will achieve?
“My goal is to find really good researchers in my field, and set up international collaborations. I mentor young people, and look for cool ideas: a lot of this happens at physics/engineering conferences, and has been somewhat hampered in recent years by undue restrictions on conference travel. I’m also given total freedom to interface with universities to discuss new topics and problems. I occasionally go to program reviews to look for new collaborations, and talent. I try to identify personnel whom I believe will make a good fit and one day be in senior positions to make important decisions for our command and warfighters. I hope I can look back 20 years from now and know I was able to make an impact on (some of) the people who work here.”
In your own words, what is it about what you do that makes it so significant?
“As already stated, I love working on seemingly intractable physics problems (that have a relevance to USN/DOD systems, of course), and I publish a lot. If I were at a halfway decent university, I might be a tenured professor by now! I want to make it clear that I really love the lab (SSC Pacific), for the people, the opportunities, the freedom to look at technology through a ‘wide aperture,‘ and I must add that I have been blessed with prescient (and tolerant!) management throughout my career. I look upon my activities as my way to return a small measure to the lab which has been very good to me.”
How could you use your work/research to aid the military or help with military missions?
“Magnetic sensors are used to provide warfighters with early detection of capability of possible military threats. SSC Pacific’s Advanced Dynamic Research team has partners with researchers around the world in the creation of the Advanced Dynamic Magnetometer (ADM). The ADM is an inexpensive, small, mobile sensor which can be used for many military and civilian applications. Some of the military applications include unattended surveillance of remote areas, and various surveillance and force applications in littoral waters; detection of hostile intruders in surrounding environments; and perimeter, border, and building protection. The sensor can be packaged with other sensors (e.g., seismic, infrared), thereby making it easier to quantify a signal source.”
“Needless to say these sensors have other uses. They have been tested as undersea surveillance and swimmer detection sensors, in addition to the land uses mentioned above.”
What do you think is the most impressive/beneficial thing about what you do and why?
“A lot of the folks in Washington ask ‘Why is the Navy doing basic research?’ Good question! Industry doesn’t have the incentive (or funding) to do basic research any more, unless it is connected to a very specific product (the bottom line is, always, money); for sure you do not have the ‘wide aperture’ in industry as you do at a warfare lab like SPAWAR Pacific, where intra-lab collaborations are highly encouraged. We note that some of the stuff we’ve come up with in the last 10 years is now becoming part of the magnetometers being used in sea trials in unmanned underwater vehicles and, maybe, even space applications, in addition to being inserted into other types of sensors/systems to yield significantly enhanced performance.”
“So the answer is that we start out working on a Navy need, and applying our expertise to it. Along the way we do have to tackle some thorny physics/engineering issues, a lot of which results in 6.1-ish research that we publish and which gets inserted into real applications.”
If you could go anywhere in time and space, where would you go and why?
“I thought about going forward in time, but why? The world is in turmoil, coupled with a social order riven with the (usually adverse) results stemming from moronic politicians of every stripe, in every country, and much more. Thus, the future could turn out pretty good…or pretty bad. Hence, I would prefer to go back in time and, instead of going to grad school, I’d study music. I love grand opera (e.g. works by Puccini, Verdi and Wagner), and rich romantic-era music (e.g. Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler). I’d love to go to Vienna and study conducting. Possibly, be good enough to conduct the Metropolitan Opera, in the Wagnerian Ring Cycle. I really would like that! And to do it I’d have to be simply the best, and I think this could all be within reach, if I could turn the clock back. But…that’s wishing.”
Thanks to Dr. Adi Bulsara for contributing to this article, and for his contributions to the science and technological communities.
Jessica L. Tozer is the editor-in-chief for Armed with Science. She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.