Prof Ranga Dias, although currently a Post doctoral fellow at Harvard University, never really applied to Harvard. They invited him, three times. He missed out on the first two meetings due to work and other engagements, but was able to attend the third meet. His Ph.D work at Washington State University in the field of extreme condensed matter physics, specializing in superconductivity and insulator metal transitions in simple molecular systems no doubt impressed the guys at Harvard.
At 26 Prof Ranga Dias is what you’d call an experimental extreme condensed matter physicist, with a penchant for hydrogen. Prof Dias and Thomas D. Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences Isaac Silvera recently carried out groundbreaking research which succeeded in creating the rarest material on the planet; metallic hydrogen. It’s been referred to as the holy grail of extreme condensed matter physics in that it is the first ever sample of metallic hydrogen on earth, something that’s never existed before.
“My current research focuses on probing quantum phenomena under extreme pressures and temperatures,” the Harvard based scientist, Prof Dias explained in a phone interview with Weekend Nation.
“Under normal temperature and pressure, hydrogen is a gas,” says Dias explaining in lay terms his line of work. “But if you apply pressure to hydrogen it turns into a metal.”
Scientists theorized over 80 years ago that if pressure is applied to hydrogen molecules at a certain point, more than 71.7 million pounds per square inch to be precise (greater than the pressure at the center of the earth), they dissociate into atomic hydrogen or metal.
Metallic hydrogen could have many applications from rocketry to power cables. As much as 15 per cent of energy dissipates during energy transmission. It takes an enormous amount of energy to create metallic hydrogen and the scientists pointed out that this energy can be harnessed when it’s converted back to molecular hydrogen. Using it as a rocket fuel could revolutionize rocketry and space exploration, according to Dias.
According to Harvard Gazette Silvera making wires out of metallic hydrogen would solve the problem of loss in energy transmission as metallic hydrogen could act as a superconductor. Metallic hydrogen could also revolutionize the transport sector. High speed trains could be made to magnetically levitate, literally eliminating friction. Metallic hydrogen would make an ideal medium of power storage due to its potential as superconductors.
The possibilities may seem limitless. But for a man whose findings may have limitless possibilities, Dias has humble beginnings. He had his primary education at St Joseph’s Boys School, Nugegoda and did his OLs at President’s College, Maharagama. He sat for his ALs at Royal College, Colombo and began his education in sciences at the University of Colombo as an undergraduate student in physics and mathematics. In 2007 after finishing his undergraduate degree in Physics, he moved to the USA for his Ph.D work at Washington State University.
His father, Bandula Kumara, although an artist, was the one who inculcated in Dias a love for science. “My father would make stuff like planes and engines at home and we were exposed to such experiments at an early age,” says Dias.
Dias has two other siblings and remembers fondly that they were never forced to do things they didn’t want to do. “My parents were very simple people and they never said that we had to be doctors or engineers. We had a lot of freedom as kids”, he recalled.
Dias was 13 when he became a member of the Astronomy and Space Study Centre (ASSC) colloquially known as Subodhi for being located at Subodhi Institute, Wewala, Piliyandala. “I was in eighth grade and most of the others were very senior people. It was a very fascinating place. People of different backgrounds, sciences, mathematics and arts all gathered there to study astronomy”, said Dias.
A physics discussion they had one evening turned out to be a turning point in his life. It was around 4 O’clock and the subject of discussion was superconductors. Dias got hooked for life.
His Ph.D. was so successful that people in high places at Harvard already knew who he was. This earned him a post doctoral fellow at Harvard. Dias also has a Harvard MBA under his belt. His life at Harvard is a far cry from President’s College, Maharagama, but Dias says what matters most is heart. “I always knew I wanted to be a scientist. I was always focused”, he boasted.
He contends that schooling matters little when there is focus, dedication and hard-work ahead and admitted that Harvard was a bit intimidating at the beginning. “It was no different from any other place. They just work hard and are more focused”, Dias said.
Dias explained that there are many opportunities for Sri Lankans in universities such as Harvard. “One of the drawbacks of the Sri Lankan system is the age of graduation. By the time we graduate we’re 25 or 26 and by the time we come to a foreign university for our post graduate studies we’re around 28. But in the US people start university at around 21 and by the time they finish they’re 26 or 27. Students are wasting their young years under the Sri Lankan education system,” declared Dias.
“You don’t have to wait till you finish your basic degree to apply for a foreign university. You can apply in your fourth year and join right after undergrads.”
Dias pointed out that some students wait till they finish their basic degree to sit for exams such as TOEFL and IELTS.
His advice to foreign university hopefuls is to study hard and get a good GPA. “University rankings matter only if you are able to get into one of the top 10 universities. But there is no big difference between the top 40 and top 60 universities”, said Dias while arguing that what matters is the research programmes they offer. “It’s important to pick the right research programme. Check with the university and their areas of current interest and how strong these programmes are. Their rankings may be low but certain research areas may be very strong.”
Dias explained that he picked Washington State University because it was the best university in the US for condensed matter physics. “It’s important to do your best at whereever you get to do it. This way you can get into any big US university later”, said Dias.
Dias explained that Harvard looks for people who can apply what they’ve learned for research. “Most Sri Lankan students are so exam-focused that they lose sight of the fact that they would have to apply what they’ve learned in the lab. You may have really good grades but when it comes to application some fail miserably”, he said and pointed out that another drawback in the Sri Lankan system is the lack of infrastructure for research.
Dias suggests that undergraduates be more research-oriented. “Do experiments and publish your research. If you have a few published papers at least in local journals then foreign university administrations would know that you’re not just book-smart. Some people who make it to good foreign universities don’t have the best GPA, but their research side is really strong.”
Although Dias has no hopes of returning to Sri Lanka in the near future, he says he’s more than happy to work in collaboration with Sri Lankan university students. “The kind of cutting edge research that I’m into right now cannot be done in Sri Lanka,” says Dias.
Dias says he wants to be the bridge that connects Harvard and Sri Lanka. He says that he would be more than happy to talk to any university student, to help them build their career and give them a few pointers on experiments. “There are a lot of inexpensive experiments that can be done in Sri Lanka that students can even do for their Ph.Ds and I’m perfectly willing to collaborate with them”, said Dias.