Interview with Dr Noel Murphy, Head of the School of Electronic Engineering at DCU
Interview with Dr Noel Murphy, Head of the School of Electronic Engineering at DCU

Interview with Dr Noel Murphy, Head of the School of Electronic Engineering at DCU

What is your primary area of research?

I have a broad set of research interests, but the most enduring one is my interest in understanding in Information Theory terms how the human visual system can develop and operate. The cortex of the brain is a structure with distinct layers of neurons, with connections between these layers within each area of the brain and between different areas. Now, there simply isn’t enough data in a human genome to specify the billions of connections between neurons in the brain, and indeed the immature brain has many more connections than survive in the brain of an adult human, so something about the operation of the brain as it is exposed to the world and matures seems to determine which connections are retained and strengthen and which ones disappear. In the early visual system in particular, there seems to be stages of development as axons of neurons first grow from the eye to the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN), then to area V1 of the visual cortex (at the back of the brain), and on to areas V2/V3. To my mind it has to be something about the signals carried by the axons of these neurons that determines, or triggers or moulds the development of each set of connections. This is the realm of Information Theory - understanding the relationships between signals and the information carried by them - and that is the domain of an electronic engineer. 

What sparked your interest in this area of research?

I started working in Computer Vision in DCU after completing my primary degree in Theoretical Physics. After a while I became disenchanted with the ad hoc approach taken by then research in Computer Vision and I started reading about biological vision - in particular the philosophy of perception and the neuroscience of vision in animals and humans. The former led me to the work of two Chilean biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, whose insight into the nature of the living organism is very deep and intellectually coherent. The latter led me to the mathematical models of biological neural circuits, particularly in the visual system, of Stephen Grossberg and his colleagues in Boston University. Built up over a 40-year career, often outside the mainstream community of artificial neural network researchers, the ideas of Grossberg are the only ones that have convinced me as being close to an actual explanation of the incredibly complex operation of the human cortex, and particularly of illusory phenomena that we can literally see with our own eyes. I think our mathematical, engineering and computer technologies are still a long way away from allowing us to put much of Grossberg’s work to practical use, but I’m absolutely convinced that he is thinking about these problems in the correct way. I just wish that I had more time to work on these ideas.

What do you consider to be the most rewarding aspect of a career in engineering?

I love teaching at Third Level. I don’t claim to be brilliant at it but I love the process of reading into an area – understanding its foundations, scope and key concepts, structuring the ideas and then presenting the understanding that I have gained to anyone who will listen, usually my captive audience of engineering students! I often say to my PhD students and to my colleagues, if you want to really learn something, offer to teach it. You can’t escape with an imperfect understanding when there’s a class full of clever students trying to make your understanding their own. 

Engineering is not about any specific technology. Engineering is a way of thinking about the world – a way of organising and systematizing it so that we can exert our will over it, and hopefully make it a better, more comfortable place. I would often say that engineers use mathematical tools to solve problems, but even that is not the whole story: the mathematics involved is only a vehicle or a tool to be used – albeit an incredibly powerful one. About 10 years ago I did an MSc in Pure Maths (part-time) because I wanted to equip myself with better tools and that was an incredible experience. Pure Maths is not really intended for the applied world of the engineer, but it’s always only a matter of time before a clever engineer finds a way of turning some abstract object to a use for which it was never intended.

What other hobbies do you have outside of Engineering?

My main hobby is aviation. I have a pilot’s licence. I’m building a two-seat Vans RV-8 airplane at home, and I was involved in the development of the DCU BSc in Aviation Management over a decade ago. I teach on to the first, second and fourth year of that programme (as well as my engineering subjects of Electromechanical Systems, and Bioelectronics). To me this is like being paid to spend time talking about my hobby. Even there, I bring the mentality of the engineer: how can I describe, understand, model and predict the operation of the human, technological, or aviation systems at which I am looking. 

What advice would you give to someone about to embark on studying Engineering?

You probably already like maths. You don’t have to be a genius at it, just reasonably comfortable with handling mathematical ideas. If you’re at second level you might have come across software and programming, and perhaps embedded microcontrollers like the Arduino. These things are close to Computer Engineering. You most likely will not really have come across the ideas that are central to Electronic Engineering. These are the ideas of vectors and differential equations that are treated in Applied Maths at Leaving Cert, which not a lot of students have access to or take. So it can be quite hard to get a real sense what Electronic Engineering is about, but it’s an intellectually very satisfying and very powerful set of topics with very broad application. 

My first electronics book was the Ladybird book on how to build your own transistor radio. I guess that was the equivalent of the Maker Culture of more recent times. So if you want to see what electronic engineering is about, get a book like Make Electronics, or watch my colleague Derek Molloy’s YouTube video channel, or read into the All About Circuits webpage. There’s an incredibly interesting world waiting for you to explore. How you can use that to make the world a better place is only down to your imagination.