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"One is continually a student of the universe"

For the past 40 years, our new Guest Professor, Paul Bolton, has worked in the field of physics. Nowadays, he is still just as excited and there’s not a week in his life where he isn’t learning something new or being intrigued by new ideas.

Paul Bolton (photo: Thorben Seggebrock)

Before arriving in Munich this summer, he spent the past seven years as the Deputy-Director-General of the Kansai Photon Science Institute located in outskirts of Kyoto, Japan. 
As a Guest Professor, associated with Professor Katia Parodi's team, he will pass on his knowledge at LMU, initially by offering a new graduate course about the 'integrated laser-driven ion accelerator system (ILDIAS)' and it’s applications.

You spent the past seven years in Japan, what attracted you to go there?

It was the opportunity in Kyoto; leaders wanted somebody who had both accelerator experience and laser experience and I have spent many years in both fields. It was a chance to combine laser plasma physics and high power laser physics with innovative ion accelerator development. I was really attracted by that. I believe they also wanted a foreign scientist to bring a western influence in this unique role and I certainly had that qualification because most of my professional career happened in what we call ‘silicon valley’ in California. I didn’t know anything about Japanese culture or the Japanese language.  So in a sense I was stepping into the unknown in so many ways. But I was technically and scientifically drawn to that combination. I really wanted to do it.

Did you have to cope with many cultural differences?

I needed to understand their priorities, preferences and general rationale for things they would do or not do. Trying to learn this was a unique experience for me that typically highlighted clear cultural differences. Administration is very authoritative there and they tend to follow procedures rigidly (algorithmically). As an act of courtesy, if my Japanese co-workers disagreed with me or did not understand me they would seldom directly express this.  I learned to interpret and work with this common behavior.
Did you stay in Kyoto while the nuclear accident in Fukushima happened?
Yes; fortunately for us we were pretty far away from Tohoku area that was strongly hit - about 600 kilometers. So on the day it happened we didn’t feel much shaking. The earth hardly moved in Kyoto. The impact for us therefore was not seismic in terms of ground-motion, but it was seismic, figuratively speaking, in terms of corporate changes and program adjustments. My institute is part of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency which immediately inherited important responsibilities in the aftermath of that event. I was the deputy director at KPSI, which meant that I was its science director, and in that capacity I regularly authorized researchers going to the Tokyo area to assist with radiation monitoring.  Many JAEA sites contributed personnel for this. Every few weeks at least two people from my institute would spend a busy week in Tokyo and this went on for about a year and a half.

What do you expect to be able to do here in Munich?

I spent much time working in different (yet related) fields: microwaves, accelerators, lasers. My background is unique in many ways: when you add it up I’ve spent about 40 years working with lasers, about 25 years working with accelerators and maybe 15 working with lasers and accelerators combined. What brought me here, was the strong interest in building and using laser driven accelerators. However, at first glance, there are several components to what I can do here. One is strongly promoting a focused effort to build a laser-driven machine, that will be used for diverse applications and one that can be a test laboratory for relevant new technologies. It is highly appropriate to view this development in the general context of accelerator advancement much like the pioneering introduction of microwaves to high energy accelerators decades ago.
Another one is curriculum development: I want to help our Chair, Professor Katia Parodi build a medical-physics program that explicitly includes the ‘laser-case’. New courses can make students more aware of progress being made in this area. Students of medical physics can learn about laser alternatives and what’s actually happening in laser and laser-plasma communities.  To this end I have introduced a new graduate course about ‘ILDIAS’ (integrated laser-driven ion accelerator systems). A few years ago laser-driven accelerators would not have been part of a medical physics curriculum and now it can be, which is typical of the laser: it is ubiquitous and can interfere with everything.
My other interest concerns the transition beyond the MAP horizon and the research and development opportunities it affords. I’m interested in multifaceted strategies and new development opportunities for the future: where does all this lead, how do we exploit the uniqueness that the laser can bring and what can be our best role ?  In the future I think we will have access to laser driven beamlines of some sort that will open up a lot of unique possibilities for new programs and new kinds of thinking. This vision is consistent with a global accelerator history that spans almost a century.  We want to be ready for our successes.

What, according to you, is the most fascinating thing about physics?

The most fascinating aspect for me is that the fascination has never ended. I’m as excited now, maybe more so, as I was at fifteen years of age. I’ve never lost that passion for physics and new science. I don’t think I have had a week pass where I wasn’t learning something new or being intrigued by some new concept or new technology. I think the most fascinating thing is that it is a never-ending compelling exploration. One is continually a student of the universe and maybe in this sense we are forever children. The learning component to me is a thrill. 
I consider myself most fortunate to be working in this field, to be a physicist. The uniqueness of what we do, especially when we start combining laser technologies with other technologies opens up opportunities that are limited only by our imagination and our energy. What a wonderful condition, what a wonderful state to be in. 

interview: Karolina Schneider
photos: Thorben Seggebrock