With a Love for Music and Mathematics

– You face a problem that no one has ever solved before. After having tried and failed many times, you find the solution and then you realize you’re the only person in the world to know the solution.
This is one thing that inspires Philippe Tassin as an associate professor of physics at Chalmers University of Technology.

Tassin is dressed in a grey suit, but at the same time he is very easy-going, friendly and down-to-earth. During my interview, he laughs a lot in a philosophical way.

In high school in Belgium, Tassin was passionate about studying music, but his fascination for science and mathematics was stronger. At the age of 17, he won a bronze medal at the International Chemistry Olympiad in Copenhagen, Denmark. Later on, he obtained a PhD summa cum laude. Liking his subject has been essential for his successes in science and mathematics.

– But I did not achieve that all alone.

His parents are both graduates in computer science. They pushed him to achieve things, but not towards physics in particular.  His high school chemistry teacher was very enthusiastic. She put a lot of extra effort in preparing him for the Olympiad. As a PhD student, Tassin had an outstanding advisor.

– We pushed one another a lot. Having good mentors is important.

He did not abandon music entirely, though. He enjoys playing the clarinet in his spare time, because it is fun at the same time as it provides him with the challenge to learn a new piece of music. That is why he is a member of the Göteborg Academic Symphonic Orchestra. He also likes skiing.

A change of plans
His original plan was working in Belgium. During his PhD studies, however, he decided to study abroad for a while. This is what Tassin did in 2007 and 2008 in Greece.

– My time abroad in Greece really changed my perspective on life.

The first four years after his PhD, Tassin worked in the United States. In 2013, he came to Chalmers. There are many similarities and some small differences between Belgium, Iowa and Sweden. Iowa is the coldest, whereas Belgium and Gothenburg (Sweden) share about the same weather. Iowa is very rural, whereas Brussels and Gothenburg have more things to offer as more densely populated places.

– Working with physics is about the same all over the world.

Tassin enjoys working at Chalmers for many reasons. Chalmers is one of the best universities in Europe. People also appear very driven here, especially at the Department of Physics.

Gothenburg is large enough to have all the good things, but not the problems of big cities. The first Tassin liked about Gothenburg was the downtown area.  He likes its atmosphere and good places to drink coffee.

– It is also very nice to visit the islands off Gothenburg.

Materials with new optical properties
Tassin's research is focused on developing metamaterials. The idea for doing research on metamaterials is very young. Scientists came up with the idea for the first time in 2001. Metamaterials are artificial materials that interact with light in new ways.

– The glass on the whiteboard reflects the light impinging on it, depending on the atoms it is made of, and how these atoms cooperate. But traditional optical materials have only a few dozens of atoms to be made of.

Metamaterials are artificial materials built from tiny electrical circuits instead of atoms.

– With metamaterials, engineers have many more design options. Using nanotechnology we can now create materials with entirely new optical properties.

One such new material being researched is used for invisibility cloaks. Another more everyday invention is smaller, energy-efficient antennae for cell phones.

Tassin did not only study mathematics and science in high school, but also Latin. He thinks it is important that students do not specialize too early on. Having a broad and diverse knowledge can provide a scientist with the creativity needed to solve problems.

– Researchers need to specialise, but not too soon.

Flexibility important
When you do research at Tassin's level, you face international competition and you must be ready to work very hard.

– There are absolutely stressful moments, but a good thing about working at a university is the flexibility. Of course I have to put in many hours every week, but if I feel tired one day, I can choose to work more another day.

He is not only a researcher, but also a teacher. The key to teaching for Tassin is adapting his lectures to his students. He also likes to organize activities to engage the public with research. Tassin thinks that children need to get in contact with science early on, so they can actively choose if they want to study it. He also believes that the public needs to understand why science is important to our society.

Text: Oskar Brandt
Photo: Sabina Johansson

Published: Mon 23 Mar 2015. Modified: Sun 13 May 2018