Professor Man Kim-Fung, head of City University of Hong Kong’s department of electronic engineering, believes it is misguided for societies to pigeonhole their most talented people as being either scientific or artistic, but never both. Innovation and creativity, he says, spring from having an open mind. “Being an engineer can be a very artistic endeavour,” Professor Man insists. “Every design an engineer comes up with must have symmetry, must be in proportion, and have balance.
“Recently, I’ve been working on antenna designs. The circuits look very complicated, but you will find that their shape is actually symmetrical. When you become an engineer, you need artistic eyes to appreciate design. Good design is artistic by nature. To say that an engineer must not have an artistic point of view, and vice versa, is not a sensible approach.”
Specialising in evolutionary computing, control engineering and antenna optimisation, Professor Man oversees one of the most accomplished academic centres for electronic engineering excellence in the world today. On August 15 of this year, in fact, in the Academic Ranking of World Universities 2013 (released by the Centre for World-Class Universities of Shanghai’s respected Jiao Tong University), City University ranked number one in Greater China, and 25th worldwide, in the field of engineering, technology and computer sciences.
“The standards at City University are extremely high and research is one of our top priorities,” says Professor Man, pointing out that his department currently caters to more than 1,000 engineering students in total, including more than 200 Masters students and around 130 PhD students. Sixty or so professors, including about 30 chair professors, lend further prestige and heft to the facility’s reputation.
“This department alone publishes something like 280 technical journal papers every year,” Professor Man adds. “To put that into perspective, we have benchmarked the number of papers we deliver against other respected colleges, such as Imperial College London. We are way ahead of Imperial College and on par with the University of California in San Diego.”
Professor Man’s personal road to the peak of his profession has, he says, been circuitous. “My career has been through a number of stages,” he explains. “My degree was in electrical and electronic engineering. I was fascinated by mathematical equations, about how dynamic systems work, and the most obvious field for that subject when I was young was in aircraft, so I completed a Masters in flight control at Cranfield Institute of Technology in England. Then I went out into industry" to design aircraft autopilot systems at Marconi Rochester. After a couple of years it was time to do a PhD in aerodynamics, also at Cranfield, which I completed in 1983.”
Having spent more than two fruitful decades in the UK, Professor Man eventually returned to his native Hong Kong to become a senior lecturer at City Polytechnic (before the educational establishment gained university status in 1994). With Hong Kong having no aircraft industry to speak of, he was forced to explore other areas of expertise. “I really had to change my research direction,” he recalls. “Hong Kong is a very noisy place, to say the least, and acoustics – the technology of sound – was interesting to me. So that’s what I did. Noise control seemed like an area in which I could use my background in dynamic systems – pick up a noise source and then use loudspeakers to change the phase of signals to cancel out the noise.”
Professor Man’s precise approach to the problem of noise control continued for more than 10 years, and with substantial practical repercussions. “We created a number of successful noise-control applications by using the most innovative types of loudspeaker, and that’s the flat-panel speaker. I worked with China Light & Power on a demonstration site in Tsuen Wan, for instance. We built a wall of flat-panel speakers that was at least 200-square-metres in size. The aim was to cancel out transformer noise. It was so successful that we managed to cancel out more than 20db. That was a terrific result.”
And when it comes to his own taste in music, Professor Man’s equal respect for both the arts and science is obvious. “Basically, when talking of acoustics, were simply talking of sound, and the sound spectrum is very wide,” Professor Man says. “Music is very personal, some people like the acoustics of an orchestra, others like the sounds of pop music, but we’re still talking about the same spectrum of signals. Appreciation of music, then, I think, is about culture - Chinese culture, English culture, American culture, it doesn’t matter which. Personally, I’m ‘bilingual’ in my musical tastes – after all, I was in England for 21 years – but essentially I’m Chinese at heart.”
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