The interview was conducted by IRINA KUKOTA
Roman Grigorievich Maev is a world-famous scientist, Doctor of Physics and Mathematics,and an author of unique innovations and inventions. His story is that of a theoretical physicist who made universal discoveries in the spheres of acoustic microscopy and image analysis, which found a practical application in many fields: aircraft building, medicine and the study of art.
On his moving to Canada back in the 1990s Prof Maev established his own research school. Now he heads the Applied Physical Research Subdepartment of the University of Windsor in Canada, develops applications in the fields of electrical and computer engineering, is Director of Institute for Diagnostic Imaging Research at University of Windsor, supervises the research team at the Institute of Biochemical Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) and is in charge of scientist exchange programmes between Canada and Russia. He is a member of the Canada-Russia Business Council, of the Canada-Russia Intergovernmental Economic Commission and a co-chairman of the innovative technology subcommission.
In 1998 R.G. Maev was appointed Honourable Consul of the Russian Federation in Canada, and in 2016 by the decree of the President of Russia he was awarded the Order of Friendship for his contribution to the development of international relations.
Roman Grigorievich, can you tell us how you became Professor of a Canadian university?
In the mid-nineties I was invited to participate in the ‘Chernomyrdin – Gore’ Intergovernmental Technology Exchange Programme between the Russian Federation and the USA. At that time some interest in my applications appeared in Canada: the Department of Industry suggested me to make a forty-day tour round the country, its universities and scientific centres. I made reports, and spoke with my colleagues from universities. Following the tour four universities of Quebec and Ontario offered me employment. I chose the University of Windsor. Twenty-two years have passed since then. In essence, I started my work from point zero, but that did not prevent me from founding a scientific centre, and on the basis of it I formed the world-renowned research school. I visited Moscow annually and each time I was increasingly convinced that my decision to conduct scientific research abroad had been absolutely right.
Did you still have contacts with Moscow?
Yes, of course. It was an intergovernmental exchange programme, so I remained a staff member of the Institute of Biochemical Physics of RAS. Though I did not receive any salary, I remained the supervisor of my Moscow research team and the research laboratory which finally acquired international status. This later enabled me to invite specialists from the Russian Academy of Sciences to work in Canada. I still maintain warm relations with my colleagues from the Academy of Sciences and the RAS Presidium members.
So your school has ‘scattered’ over different countries?
I think it has. Leaving between 1992 and 1995, many of my talented alumni found jobs very soon all over the world. Working with them, directors of research institutes and laboratories learned about Roman Maev’s research school which subsequently made my work in the West easier.
Unlike in Europe, the establishment of research schools in North America went out of fashion: this requires too much responsibility. Professors are generally quite formal with students and they are not concerned about their careers as scientists. At first my Canadian colleagues (co-workers at the department) looked at me with hidden terror and incomprehension: I was trying to create something like a family of researchers, with scientific traditions, obligations, inner world, and I took care of every single student as if he were my relative. But little by little I succeeded in bringing the professors around to my point of view and establishing my own scientific centre which today is famous for my Canadian research school.
Please, can you tell us about your research work for Daimler Chrysler Corporation which in 2001, 2002 and 2006 awarded you for outstanding research and development of the company’s technologies?
It was a collapse of fixed notions and preconceived ideas, and that was not an easy job for me. The President of Windsor University suggested me to cooperate with the Chrysler company in the creation of equipment for controlling the quality of car manufacturing. This new endeavour required new skills from me, albeit it was connected with acoustic microscopy. Nevertheless I came to the motor industry as a theoretical physicist, with my ‘fresh’ vision of things, which had many advantages. I managed to solve some very difficult problems. There is a great difference between the terms ‘invention’ and ‘innovation’. An invention is just an idea, whereas innovation is a successful practical implementation of this idea.
Your discoveries are used in a number of areas and fields at the same time: aviation, medicine, motor industry and even art. How have they proved to be universally applicable?
Сhrysler was both our customer and our sponsor simultaneously. I spent a few months at automobile plants in a creative quest, speaking to specialists from various production teams. We created the first working prototypes in my university laboratory and we tested and improved them for about three years after that. And it was then that Chrysler and Mercedes merged. I went to Germany where German engineers would fish out of us all the details of how controls, sensors and signal processing algorithms worked. In the course of this complicated and painful process an industrial prototype of an unique technology appeared: a powerful instrument with a method library for quality control.
We needed to create an apparatus which would control the quality of metal and its compounds. According to the old practice, they would choose one automobile from a batch of cars and disassemble it (with doors, roofs and wings detached), and thus welding quality control was carried out. That was a costly process. We offered an effective alternative: ultrasonic nondestructive testing which enabled one single motorcar manufacturer to save $40 million per year. And Chrysler alone had over ten such plants. It is absolutely clear that the introduction of latest technique into manufacturing had a colossal economic effect.
Daimler Chrysler decided to keep the patents and my team that had all the technical applications. Thus, in 2005 an independent company, Tessonics, separated from Windsor University and came into existence, which has been successful for already twelve years.
How did your discovery start to be applied in medicine?
Our research proved to be of great relevance in biomedicine. The medical community supported us. In 2008 we set about devising a series of portable machines enabling to perform the examination of brain, lungs and jaws. The new tasks meant an expansion of our laboratory staff. So additional staff joined it: engineers, programmers, and specialists in biophysics and biomedicine. In turn it increased our opportunities and diagnostic tools.
What is unique about your applications in the field of image analysis and processing?
Having obtained an image of, say, a spot weld, the device digitizes it and compares to standard samples. Then a unique specialised programme identifies defects (air bubbles, inclusions, cracks, layer separation etc.) and, having analysed the image, presents its findings on the quality of the weld. It saved operating time and improved product quality. In general, multifunctional real-time digital image processing is one of the main trends of modern science. For example, in hot spots it is important to unmistakably identify anyone depicted on a photograph. Nowadays the Federal Bureau of Investigation after recording fingerprints or sending a photograph to a database has to wait for a response for up to half an hour, which is quite slow. In the near future thanks to advanced technologies the waiting time will be reduced to six to eight minutes.
How did you switch over to research in art? You even have such machines which cannot be found in laboratories of large museums.
Every country has its national museums with scientific research laboratories. But even if the London National Gallery has a good spectrometer, it does not mean that a private collector will be able to examine a painting from his collection with it. Neither a collector, nor a private gallery, nor a small museum can make an analysis of this kind: on the one hand, large museums tend to stick to work ethics and try to avoid potential scandals; on the other hand, they do scientific research of their own. You can ask individual experts to examine your work of art, but it may take several months to do, which gives cause for concern of both the owner and his insurance company.
We set ourselves the task of creating a mobile laboratory which at a customer’s request would be able to come and make an analysis of his work of art in the owner’s presence. We see a good potential here, a niche which was exactly suitable for us. Over the first three years of pilot projects in England alone the National Trust, the English Heritage, Victoria & Albert Museum, Courtauld Institute, the Fitzwilliam Museum and Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge became our partners and customers, to name but a few. In addition, there are our customers and partners in the USA ((ДИА, Детройт), Canada (The Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Art, Iranian Art and Muslim Culture in Toronto) and Russia (the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, the Hermitage Museum). We are cooperating with the British Institute of Non-Destructive Testing (BINDT) and are taking part in partner projects with auctions, galleries, art dealers and collectors. Our prompt analysis opportunities are fine for large national and small private galleries alike. Our current task is to create a lab in London which will function on a regular basis.
Do you conduct various kinds of analysis (ultrasonic, ultraviolet, infrared, thermal and spectral analyses) in the premises/homes of your customers? Does it affect the cost?
Yes, it does. The cost for our method of analysis is considerably cheaper than the traditional one. We are trying to equip our laboratory with modern powerful portable devices with application of new techniques based on photographing. It includes a wide scope of infrared techniques: near-infrared, mid-and far-infrared lights – all of them are different types of radiation which give different results. We are equipped with the methods of thermography, spectral analysis, ultrasound and radioscopy. Apart from analytical technologies we also use restoration technologies – the unique cold spray. With the use of this technology we have restored the monument to General Gordon along with the famous Horses of Helios Fountain in Haymarket / Piccadilly Circus in London. Our equipment can help restorers find an optimal strategy: with the help of our equipment they could detect problem areas even before they become visible – places where cleavages, craquelure, deterioration of both paint layer and support may appear. In the professional language it is called fatigue growth dynamics detection.
We have also launched a joint project with Cambridge Hamilton Kerr Institute as well as Dr Spike Bucklow – one of the most outstanding specialists in craquelure [a network of fine cracks in the paint or varnish]. Dr Bucklow has developed an extensive research database and can identify a painting’s country of origin by the type of cracking patterns. On the basis of his database we built our algorithms. To date our technology can identify cracking patterns with up to ninety-seven per cent accuracy and class them as Italian, Spanish, French, Flemish or even Antwerp types. By the way, Spike and I have published our joint research papers on this subject.
How do you manage to keep up with the advances of technology?
Very often our own customers are instrumental in the creation of new applications: they set us the tasks that trigger the process of improvement of technologies and search for new solutions. We are constantly advancing image analysis programmes, perfecting our equipment, adding new technologies. For instance, since last year our mobile lab has had a microwave scanning radar which allows us to get an image in thick castle walls half a metre deep. Authentication and protection of works of art from copies and fakes were added to our main areas of research related to technical analysis two years ago. We have upgraded the image processing and identification system and developed coding systems. This research is being conducted in the trend of ‘deep learning’ that appeared ten years ago: its aim is to teach the system to identify objects with the fuzzy-logic-based approach. It is virtually impossible to deceive this technology.
The process of enciphering of objects of art is carried out according to certain parameters in secret codes. First of all I mean canvas painting (but it can also be silk, metal, paper, wood). Today we can already obtain a three-dimensional image of an individual brushstroke, together with the distribution of artistic pigments within it, and determine the pigment composition of a given brushstroke and the paint layer of a painting. This is done using our unique non-invasive method (without disturbing the paint layer of a painting), and then we digitize and encode it. This information cannot be copied or falsified which guarantees one hundred per cent protection of a work of art from forgery.
We have worked out seven powerful ‘golden methods’ to protect paintings from forgery. They can be integrated together in one database and then saved in an information carrying medium, for example, the RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip. The RFID can store information for more than 100 years and it will always be available to a museum or a collector. The RFID system is fine for monitoring pieces of art and their immediate identification. The further development of this approach is going on in parallel with the analysis and they complement each other. You can contact us any time if you want to learn more about our research.