A Physicist with an Environmental Compass - By : Substance,

A Physicist with an Environmental Compass

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Gazing at the stars made Xavier Daxhelet want to understand how the Universe works. He collected books on the subject and spent his free time reading about the formation and evolution of celestial bodies. He could have chosen to pursue studies in astrophysics, but the professional horizon seemed too limited. Mathematics being second nature to him, Xavier set his sights on applied physics. He chose his path while in high school and never looked back.

Capturing Light in Fibres

After earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from Université de Montréal, he pursued his master’s and PhD studies in physics engineering at Polytechnique Montréal. His research focused on light propagation inside optical fibres. Daxhelet explains that optical fibres consist of a silica core doped with germanium and surrounded by a cladding of pure silica. Light introduced into the core, particularly by a laser beam, propagates, guided by it, along the entire fibre length. One main challenge of data transmission through optical fibres is the extremely precise alignment required in operating the many components.

During his PhD, Daxhelet studied ways of guiding light from one fibre to another by making couplings. To monitor component behaviours in different environments, he used computer simulation tools. His extensive training in mathematics allowed him to develop expertise in modelling.

Making the Invisible World Visible

“Optical communication is an incredible breakthrough,” declares Daxhelet. The ability of optical fibres to transmit a phenomenal amount of data over impressive distances explains their popularity in many fields. “Optical technology is used not only in telecommunications but also in medicine, aeronautics and construction,” says Daxhelet.

From Researcher to Professor

ÉTS Professor Xavier Daxhelet

ÉTS teaching Professor Xavier Daxhelet

Xavier Daxhelet worked as a researcher in physics engineering for about ten years while pursuing a career as a lecturer at Polytechnique Montréal and ÉTS. He filed several patents in the field of fibre-optic components. Then, the technology bubble burst prompted him to accept a full-time teaching position at ÉTS. He never looked back.

Teaching is Inspiring

“Finding ways to popularize the complexity of a scientific theory and seeing the reaction of students when they understand it is just fun,” says Daxhelet.

Looking for a way to visually demonstrate abstract principles in his fluid mechanics and wave physics classes, Professor Daxhelet started to create computer animations for his students. These applications make his lectures lively and dynamic while illustrating physical phenomena—an acoustic wave dancing on a guitar string or a light ray deflected by refraction in a glass of water. Students appreciated his approach so much that Daxhelet received the Meritas Award three times for the quality of his graduate student teaching. “I won an award for something I love to do.”

While Daxhelet enjoys surprising his students, he also encourages them to think about the impact of social choices from a physicist’s perspective. “Driving a two-ton vehicle equipped with an engine with a thermal efficiency of 15%-20% to move 80 kilos of flesh and bone is absurd. It’s like preparing three turkeys per day for two people and throwing away the leftovers,” he says emphatically.

Observe, Expose and Persuade

His time in the Green Party has left its mark. A strong environmentalist, Xavier Daxhelet transposes his observations into mathematical formulae that he sets out for the next generation of engineers. “We are far from where we should be to mitigate the damage we are causing today,” he says. For Daxhelet, engineers have a very important role to play. Engineering students are trained in, mindful of environmental issues, and know there are alternatives. But how do you say just enough to spark interest and not too much to discourage? “It’s a matter of communicating with the population as best as possible without patronizing,” summarizes Daxhelet.

Reconstructing Global Complexity

While contemplating the stars’ dynamics, Xavier Daxhelet became interested in physics—understanding, modelling and studying phenomena that govern the infinitely small and the infinitely large. Today, he explains the complexity of our world to his ÉTS students with the help of computer applications he creates for them. He would like to market his software in the near future. In the meantime, Daxhelet continues to observe humanity with his physicist’s eye and his environmentalist heart.

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