Discussion Two: Jim and Wout
Jim Uttley (researcher, University of Sheffield) spoke with Wout van Bommel, January 2017.
JU: Hi Wout, thanks for doing this interview. I understand you have now retired from Philips Lighting. What are you doing now? Are you able to enjoy your retirement?
WvB: When I got my retirement from Philips in 2008 I thought, well I always liked lighting and maybe it would be nice to still be active in the lighting field, let's say for 2 days a week. In Dutch we say for 2 days a week off the street, because you see so many retired people walking the streets. And now I am 6 days a week off the streets. You call that working but for me very often it is just a hobby. After 2 years I told myself that I should change that to less days because I have some interesting hobbies for which I don't have enough time. So I thought I had to try to “work”’ less. But after another year I came to the conclusion that that does not work out well, so I like it so much that I simply carry on working 5, 6 days a week. This “work” is reading, preparing and giving lectures and lessons, writing and thinking about lighting and above all talking about lighting with other lighting people.
JU: I did have some questions about your work-life balance but I’ll come on to those later if that’s ok. So you are still active in lighting, and you said you saw it as a hobby, so you obviously enjoy the work?
WvB: Absolutely, if not I would not do it. I enjoy my life at this moment really very much. I’m busy, as I say about 5 or 6 days a week with lighting.
JU: Can I ask, where do you live? Are you still based in Eindhoven?
WvB: I live in a small village 8 km from Eindhoven.
JU: I went to Eindhoven I think last year, or the year before, for a conference, but I must admit I really liked the city. I feel it has a lot of similarities to Sheffield, an industrial past. Moving on to my next question, how did you first get into lighting, what was your route into research?
WvB: I will tell you a very honest story, I tell it to many of my students, because young people study so much and worry about their career. I studied Physics at the University of Technology in Eindhoven. But in those days you still had to go into the army, but if you went from high school to University straight, you could get the arrangement that you had to go into the army not at 18 years old but after you had finalised your university study. But it had the condition that the study delay was not too much. But physics, for me in any case, is not easy, and I had some other interests in those days also, so I didn’t follow the time path the army wanted me to follow, and then at my 5th year of study I had to go into the army unless I could guarantee that I would finish my study within one year. So I got a shock, “Mama Mia, going to the army, without my study, I will never finish my study after that!” I still had to do my Masters, and normally that takes one year but if it is difficult it takes 1.5 years. I was doing at that moment a short internship with Professor Kruithof, you know the name?
JU: Yes, that’s a familiar name
WvB: He was then my professor in atomic physics, so I was considering to do my Masters in atomic physics with professor Kruithof. But because of the army saying “No, your delay is too much, you have to come next month to report as a candidate army guy” I thought atomic physics would be too difficult and taking too much time. So then I thought, What is a very easy subject to do for my Masters? I went through the study guide and I saw that there would come in one month a new professor who would teach lighting. He worked with Philips, and his name was de Boer”. Probably you also know the name de Boer?
JU: Yes I do, he was president of CIE
WvB: So I went immediately to Philips to see this professor and asked him, you’re going to teach lighting at the
University, can I come and do my Masters with you? He said, “Yes, I would like that because then I will have a Masters student, I don’t currently have anything yet”. So that’s why I started studying lighting. I did do my Masters with him, I finished it in one year, I went into the army where immediately they picked me out and said, “Hey you have studied lighting haven’t you?” I said, Yes indeed. Then they said, “we take you to a research centre in the Netherlands where you have to study how to light the battle field while you perform your military service”.
JU: Oh ok, so lighting for battles then? That sounds interesting.
WvB: Yes. The professional contacts I made then, I still use some of them today. Well, I did do this study for the army and then after 2 years I went back to Philips Lighting. I got a job in the lighting laboratory of de Boer and Balder and never left Philips. And that’s how I came to be in lighting. So I tell my young students. Don’t want to plan everything in advance. Don’t worry so much about your career but grab your chances and opportunities when they come, that’s important.
JU: So grab whatever comes your way. That’s very interesting and useful to know. So you mentioned going to Philips. You said you never left, so what was it, about 35 years?
JU: 37 years at Philips! So over that time, how would you sum up working for Philips? Have you seen a lot of changes happen over that time?
WvB: Yeah! Ok, I have to split that question in two, because your question is about the organisation I think, but I would like to say also something about changes in lighting. Of course I have seen so many organisational changes in Philips. I even worked with Philips at the period in the mid-1990s when the company was about to go completely broke. We call that the Centurion time. And of course you then had quite a lot of changes, and for many people terrible situations, for the first time (and I hope for the last time) some 20 % of Philips people worldwide had to be laid off. It went together with a lot of reorganisations, and, well, I have learned that if you work in an organisation and the organisation doesn’t change, something is really wrong. So maybe, change for the individual person, including me, is sometimes not so nice, but you need to change in time. Society changes so your organisation has to adapt to how society changes, how the world changes. So yes I have seen quite some changes from an organisational point of view. From a lighting point of view maybe I can tell you an interesting story. My first real boss in Philips was, again another professor (I was very happy having worked in Philips with so many professors!), he was the successor of Professor de Boer at Eindhoven University, Professor Fischer, from Germany. I had a real good relationship with him. I learned from him for example that it is important to try and make difficult things in lighting a little bit more easy in order to make them suitable for practical application. Of course we must know the details, so research has to be done very carefully, and we have to find out the details of everything, but for practical use, you don’t need all those details, and if you want to take the very last details into account, it becomes almost impossible to put things into practice. I learned this from Professor Fischer. He also taught me to make difficult things easy. That’s also the reason why I really love to give lectures, I like to explain, I also like to write books about lighting, just to explain things, to make it easy so that people can understand and apply what they have learned. But then this professor Fischer went on to retirement, I think that was in the early 1980s, he had a farewell party. Of course I went there, and at the end of the party I went to shake hands, I said, I wish you all the best, and he said, “Yes, I also wish you all the best van Bommel” (because in those days bosses they never used your Christian name), “but I am so sorry for you van Bommel that you will not have such a nice time in Philips as I had”. I was very much surprised because I liked the man, and the man liked and respected me, so I said, How can you say this? And he said, “Well, I lived in the period that we invented the halogen lamp. I lived in the period we invented the High Pressure Sodium and the Metal Halide lamps, and it is so nice as an application guy to find out what you can do with those lamps, and talk with the developers how they should try to change the properties of the lamps so we can use them in more applications”. And he said, “And that will never happen in your life, because we now have all the lamps, not much new developments to be expected”. And I remember that I did see him the first 10 years, each 2 years, when he came to Eindhoven, and each time I brought a sketch to him with all the new lamps sketched on it! I can tell you I have seen the birth of so many new lamps, and therefore so many new application possibilities. And I have done myself research, in order to find out what does that new lamp have for possibilities in applications? Can we use it? What should we ask the developers to change about the lamp, to make it larger, to make it smaller, different colour rendering, different colour temperature. It has been such fun, and then just 10 years before I retired, I was confronted with a completely new subject in lighting - lighting and health. Probably you don’t know, but it was Begemann of Philips Lighting who was the first in the lighting world who came to the conclusion that lighting is very important for human health. So I was so lucky to build up knowledge on that new subject and to make relationships with the medical and biological scientific world at a very early stage. Most lighting professionals did, at that moment, know nothing about the subject. I still remember as I started to give lectures about the subject lighting and health in the very early 2000s that quite some lighting professionals just laughed when I talked about it. And now of course it is THE subject.
JU: So essentially you and your colleagues were pioneers of the non-visual effects of lighting and the link between lighting and health?
WvB: Well, the pioneers were people like Brainard, and Russell Foster, people from the medical and biological world. But in the lighting world, Philips really was the pioneer, and I was happy that in a very early stage I was involved in this subject.
JU: Like you say, that’s a huge issue at the moment, for example a lot of research being done at the moment at the Lighting Research Center in America about circadian rhythm and effects on health, the role of lighting, so it’s definitely a huge issue at the moment.
WvB: Everybody in lighting is doing something with the subject - research or thinking about applications, or making lighting installations which are intended to be good for non-visual effects of lighting. I am only sorry that the lighting field now uses the terrible word “Human-centric lighting” for it. I hate that expression! And I even hate it more that some people even use the abbreviation - HCL lighting! Like it is some special kind of lighting. No, it has to do with the effects lighting has on our body - visually, and biological. But to use the word HCL lighting for it seems to me ridiculous.
JU: I’m going to move on to the next question. You’ve already touched on some of the areas you’ve worked on in your career, but I was going to ask what you think is your biggest achievement during your career? What things are you most proud of?
WvB: OK, that’s difficult. To be honest, I think I should be most proud of the fact that I became president of CIE. And again that was also a surprising thing as I never worked into that direction. If you would have asked me 10 years before, do you want to become president of CIE or do you think you can become president of CIE, I would have said No, No No! But again, you grab the possibilities, and it happens to you.
JU: How did you find being the president? What was your experience like?
WvB: I did enjoy it. Thanks to Professor de Boer, who was 30 years before me president of CIE, I was already early active in CIE. My first subject in lighting was road lighting. De Boer asked me to write quite some parts of CIE reports. I always liked that work, also because you come into contact with other experts. You learn from the contacts, and I love to learn from my colleagues, to exchange ideas and to think about it, to talk about it. Well as president, it is a difficult job to run such an organisation of expert volunteers, but you also have good people around you. And it also gave me the possibility to even meet more people all around the world. I think I travelled to 25 different countries in my four years of being president. I did know already many road lighting people, interior lighting people, the typical application people, but I didn’t know the measurement people, I didn’t know so many fundamental people of CIE divisions 1, 2 and 6. I especially tried as president to show my face to those people I was not yet familiar with. I attended their meetings, not my own typical division 3, 4 and 5 meetings, but the other ones. It was so nice to learn about these new things, and today I still have the benefit of that I have broadened my scope in that period.
JU: Lighting is such a broad field, my background was never in lighting, I only came into the lighting field when I started my PhD, I’m still quite new to it, but that’s the thing I’ve found is how broad a subject it is. Like you say you have people from measurement, fundamental physics, applications, interior and exterior lighting. It’s such a broad field that I can imagine as president, to try to keep your hand in all those different areas must have taken a lot of your time I guess?
WVB: Yes, it took a lot of time. In those days I still worked at Philips, and I was happy that the top bosses said, “We think it is important what you are doing, so you can use 80% of your time for these 4 years for CIE”. So I was very lucky then. If I had been president of CIE today, the company would probably have said, “Well maybe you can spend 10% of your time for that, no more”. So I was lucky that at the time my bosses did support me.
JU: Are you still involved with the CIE at all? Do you still go to any of the meetings?
WvB: I try to go to some of the meetings, and yes I keep contact with people, but sometimes I think not enough, but you cannot do everything. If there were more days in a week I could do more, but of course it is also a financial thing. I am my own boss now, so if CIE decide to have a meeting in South Africa I have to pay for myself to go. To go to so many meetings all over the world, that is a bit expensive. Sometimes I have to go as a consultant to some far country. And I still teach at universities in China and India. And then of course I try to combine it with seeing CIE people. So I still have my contacts, I’m even still in one of the technical committees. I like that; I am also very active in the Netherlands as a volunteer in the Dutch lighting society, and in the CIE part of it. So yes I still have my contacts in CIE.
JU: So you have been to many conferences, many international meetings. Thinking about the conferences you’ve been to, is there any particular event or location for a conference that you remember particularly fondly?
WvB: [Laughs] Yeah! The 1979 CIE conference in Japan. That was very special. I was very young, travelling to Japan, via Anchorage [Alaska], because you could not fly in those days over Russia. I had very good contacts with Dr. Narisada, a famous Japanese lighting researcher. I visited his family at his home: so different from what I had seen so far. It was a good, very well organised conference, which you can expect from the Japanese, so I have very good memories of that conference. But as far as the contents of a conference is concerned, I simply come to the conclusion after more than 40 years, that all conferences have some very bad lectures, and all conferences have some very good lectures, and you have to sit through the bad lectures in order to enjoy the good ones. You can’t really avoid having bad lectures. Well, you can do that, just by inviting only those people you know can give fantastic lectures. I can give you names of 10-20 people who always give fantastic lectures. But then you always have the same people. So you have to take the risk to ask somebody else. And especially young people. I am a great believer in challenging young people to give a lecture. And if they do their first one… well, I tell you my first lecture was not very good. You must give them the chance. I never walk away, I see people walk away during a bad lecture. If I’m in the room, I stay, I listen, and I even try to ask an easy question, not to show that I am there, but to show the speaker that there is interest in his lecture. I think young people need this support. I got some support when I was young, and I did need it. If not, I would today have been a shy, old guy, just sitting in a room, trying to find out things for myself. I got support from older people, and now I like to give support to younger people. That’s very important.
JU: I know from personal experience how good it is, when you’ve given one of your first talks, and then to get supportive questions from the audience, or someone like yourself, with such experience, to show interest. I know how beneficial that is. I was going to ask you - talking about giving presentations - what advice would you give to someone about to give their first presentation at a conference? What could they do to make it a good one?
WvB: First of all, talk only about things you know about. Tell yourself ten times, a hundred times, whilst preparing the talk: I know more about this subject than the people in the lecture room do. Secondly, accept that you will be nervous, especially in the first 3 minutes, that’s normal. I often tell young people that even today I am the first 2-3 minutes nervous, but it is not a problem because I know more about this subject than all the people in the room. But, since you know more about that subject, you have to make it simple! Don’t think about the one or two professors sitting in the lecture room, because you even know more about your subject than those professors do. So even for those professors you have to make it simple. There are so many lecturers who jump into the details of their subject and within 2 minutes I am completely lost, because, sorry, I’m not the top expert in that subject. You have to explain things step by step! Making such step plan is important when preparing your lecture. Try to make a picture or graph for each step. Also, make very simple graphs. It is wrong to make a copy from a publication, with all the details still in it. You have to re-do your graphs and make them more simple. Only the curves that are important for the story you are telling should be in. Don’t have so much text on your slides, because your audience start reading the text and they lose what you are saying. So, very simple graphs. And don’t have all those bullet lists with text. Look to your audience. If you are nervous in the beginning look just over their heads, but once you feel more comfortable look to their faces. In that way in certain way you oblige them to listen. I once had to speak to a new professor but I didn’t yet know his face. I went to a conference and he was on the programme, so I thought to myself, I’m going to sit in on his lecture, then I will know his face and afterwards I can make an appointment with him. After his presentation, I did not know his face! Because he came on to the platform in the dark, then he was standing behind his desk and turned around, and he was talking 20 minutes to the screen! A professor! Of course, I also still make mistakes, I am still learning. When I lecture in a classroom, I like to stimulate my students to ask questions and interrupt me. Good for them but also for me. Sometimes I learn because of this: Wow, I made a mistake and I can correct my own ideas. I look to other lecturers to see what they do wrong in order to be sure I don’t make the same mistakes. But I also like to learn from others who do fantastic things, and I try to make that part of my way of lecturing and teaching. You can continuously learn, that is so nice.
JU: I hope at some point in the future to see one of your talks, and maybe get some constructive feedback from you on one of my talks! Turning now to my final question. So I said at the beginning I would return to this - turning now away from work and away from lighting, what do you like to do in your spare time? I think you mentioned you have various hobbies, when you’re not doing lighting, what do you do?
WvB: What I do…well, for example, I study the history of my family, and I have made already a small booklet about it. I intend in the future when I have more time (ha, ha) to make a more complete book, with a lot of old photographs. That is still on my programme.
JU: Do you have any famous ancestors or noteworthy ancestors?
WvB: No murderer yet! But I have a Bishop, and I have some interesting stories, from 200, 300 years ago. I’m not so much interested to go back in time just to find my great, great, great, great grandmother in the 1500s, 1200s, I’m more interested in the stories. I am also a long-distance walker, I walked for example across the United Kingdom, from Liverpool to Hull, I took the boat to Rotterdam, and I walked from Rotterdam to Germany. I am now close to Aachen (Aix en Chapelle). I walked from the Netherlands via Geneva, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I took the wrong path, it wasn’t the shortest one, I think I walked 1,000 km too much. I did not walk it in one stretch but in stretches of some 300 km per year.
JU: That must keep you fit, that kind of walking.
WvB: Yes, but I do some other sports as well. At the moment I do a lot of spinning. I did also half-marathons, but that’s no longer possible because my neck is not 100%
JU: And so how have you kept a work-life balance? This is quite topical to me at the moment, I have a young family but wanting to make a good start to my career, work hard, but also you want that family time as well. Did you manage to find a good balance yourself during your career?
WvB: During my career, I did do that. I did work quite a bit. I often say 90% of my time at Philips Lighting was really interesting and nice, 10% was not. By the way, you need that 10% of not-nice time, because if all problems and difficulties are automatically resolved, it becomes so dull. So I think that this 10% is important as well. In my Philips time it was more easy to find a balance between work and free time because I tried to reserve the weekend as much as possible for not working. My weekend was for me, for my hobbies, for walking, reading, those kind of things, spending time with friends. Now, being my own boss, to be honest it is more difficult not to work during part of the weekend. But I simply tell myself: some may call it work, but I think I should not call it work any more! [laughs]
JU: So it is more of a hobby for you?
WvB: Yes, I like it. I’m now writing, I started a half year ago, I started writing a new book about interior lighting, along the same lines as the book I wrote on road lighting. This one I will probably do a little bit slower, and I am not sure if I ever will finish it. But, yeah, on a Saturday, if I suddenly have a good idea, I go and I scribble notes, and without noticing it is 3 hours later, not a problem. Same happens sometimes when reading an article about innovative lighting research or innovative new lighting products: easy to forget the time.
JU: I guess it keeps you active, it keeps your brain active
WvB: Yes, that’s the important thing now and it is fun. I have no responsibility for budgets. Now and then I can send an invoice, but I have no obligation to go to my boss to talk about how good or bad I behaved during the past year… I, as a boss, do not have to talk to people about how they have behaved, I do not have to correct them, I don’t have those management meetings in some of which you hardly have a contribution, but still you have to be there.
JU: That was my final question, I’ve taken up too much of your time already, I really appreciate your time Wout. Thanks!