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Susanne Reffert | IPMU | Japan

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Giro d’Italia

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

Seafront in Naples

Seafront in Naples

For the last week, we have traveled Italy, having first visited the University of Rome “Tor Vergata” and now the University “Federico II” in Naples.
While the cold seems to have followed us down from North of the Alps and we’ve even seen snow flakes in Rome (rather unusual, we were assured), in Naples we finally met some milder temperatures again.

The atmosphere at Italian universities is rather tense these days. At the beginning of the month, Rome has seen violent clashes between police and students who were protesting against the proposed university reforms. As often the case, the reforms include large budget cuts and are widely feared to endanger the quality of university education. A picture that presents itself unfortunately world-wide to researchers these days.
Tomorrow will be the final vote about the reform, more protests are expected, and everyone is a bit nervous about the things to come.


The Paperless Physicist?

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Already for a few years, I have been scanning all my more important handwritten calculations and notes. Like this, they can be accessed online by myself and my collaborators whenever needed. Unlike some colleagues who proudly display a 30cm thick layer of papers covering every available surface in their offices, I generally try to avoid mountains of paper in my workflow. I tend to only print out scientific articles I really need to work with, while papers I just want to look at I read on the screen.
Recently, I even eliminated several kilos of old lecture notes and calculations, dating back until my undergrad days. With the help of the fabulous ScanSnap by Fujitsu, it was feasible. This little document scanner has an automatic document feeder and can even scan duplex in one go! While I doubt I’ll ever need my calculations from 6 years ago again and scanning them was simply a maneuver to be able to let go of the physical object, I think some of my old lecture notes might actually come in handy. As PDFs, I can just keep them on my laptop and have them always accessible.
Digitizing all my old notes and calculations helped me get rid of a lot of dead weight and made me more mobile, but of course a sound back-up strategy is a must!

Going through these piles of old paper, I naturally started wondering whether it wouldn’t be easier to avoid the detour through the dead-tree-form altogether. Are handwritten notes still a good idea nowadays? Some of my colleagues with tablet PCs have been taking notes directly on their computers for years. These days, the iPad seems to be a good option: relatively small and light, you can use it like a note pad. I have to admit I am tempted. Also as a PDF reader, it seems very convenient.

Yet I wonder if for some serious calculations and problem solving, scribbling on paper is not a necessary step in the process.

Has anyone already tried to switch all note-taking and calculations to the computer? Is it working out for you? I’d like to hear of the experiences of other people.

P.S. If you ever intend to scan all your paperwork, do yourself a favor and don’t staple stuff together. You’ll be thanking yourself one day…


On the Road Again

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Heisenberg's head Just like when I first started blogging for the Quantum Diaries one year ago, I am again on my way traveling through Europe. After 12 hours of flight and 15 degrees less, I am slowly getting used to Europe again (even though the temperature shock seems to have taken its toll).
This week, we’re in Munich, where I have spent my PhD years. I’m refreshing old friendships (even though most of the people who were there with me are now scattered somewhere around the globe) and enjoying the Christmas mood of the town (with real snow as decoration).
We’re shuttling back and forth between the Arnold Sommerfeld Center of Ludwig Maximilian University and the Max Planck Institute for Physics, also known as “Werner Heisenberg Institute”. There, they have put us into the Heisenberg office. Maybe spending time in this room will transfer some scientific insight and inspiration on me? One can always hope…


Not my favorite part of the job

Friday, November 12th, 2010

These days I’ve been slacking a bit with my posts here. The reason is that I am in the middle of applying for jobs for next year. Definitely not my favorite part of the job. Unlike when I did this for the first time five years ago, I don’t need to send a stack of 70 envelopes all around the world anymore. Now, luckily, everything can be done online. Many applications, both in Europe and the US, can be done by uploading the documents once to one website (such as AcademicJobsOnline) and then indicating which positions you are interested in. But unfortunately, there are still many institutions which have their own system. I still spend a lot of time browsing through individual job ads and filling variations of the usual forms in many different places. Ah well. It has to be done and I only hope everything will turn out well in the end (two-body problem and all).


Collaborative Consumption or Can the Internet Save the World?

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Recently, I got my hands on a book entitled What’s Mine is Yours – the Rise of Collaborative Consumption by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers. I was intrigued by the concept.

After first taking a stab at the reigning consumer culture, the book discusses product service systems (say car-sharing or Netflix), redistribution networks (say e-bay or freecycle) and collaborative lifestyles.
Its main statement can be summarized as follows: the internet, thanks to its huge scale, can serve to match just about any offer to someone needing the offered item or service. Exchanging and sharing goes from being cumbersome to being convenient for everyone. So less resources need to be wasted.
If you have an odd item you’d like to get rid of, you don’t have to throw it away anymore. You can now easily find someone who wanted just that. One person’s thrash is another person’s treasure.

This book is not one of those pessimist “we are destroying the planet” kind of books, it actually has a quite uplifting tone.
I think to a scientist, the ideas described in the book are rather appealing. It talks a lot about collaborating and sharing, which is our daily bread. As a theorist, my work is based on collaboration and shared information. And it is facilitated immensely by the internet. Not only do I make extensive use of (free!) preprint archives to browse the existing literature (if I need them, my employer luckily also has the subscriptions to the electronic versions of the paid journals), also Wikipedia is often a great help. If I had to go to a library and leaf through hardcopies of old journals, hunting down information would take so much more time. I guess some of my projects would be delayed by weeks if not months! So I am very sympathetic to the idea of sharing information with everyone on the internet.

The book discusses many successful examples of collaborative consumption that many of us already use and love, such as e-bay, craigslist and freecycle (I managed to effortlessly sell all of my furniture via an internet market place prior to moving to Japan), but also less known services like car- and bicycle sharing, ride-sharing, even garden sharing and couch-surfing networks, time banks and bartering sites.
Young scientists who have to stay light since they have to move country every few years, are likely not to be adverse to the idea of paying to use something instead of paying to own it, let alone to buying and selling used items online prior to and after a move. Most of us have grown up in an interconnected world and are much more willing than our parents’ generation to buy and sell used goods online or take advantage of the zillions of other possibilities to get what we want via the internet. Maybe we’re also a little less materialistic.

What’s Mine is Yours was for me an interesting and fun read. I learned about the background of many internet services I already knew, but also about services I had not yet heard about which seem useful and worth giving a try. I guess it wasn’t hard to convince me since the book is largely in synch with the mindset I already had.
If taking advantage of the amazing possibilities provided by the internet is a way to save the planet, I’m all for it!


Views of Seoul

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Seoul as seen from the KIAS building

Seoul as seen from the KIAS building

This week, I am attending the Autumn Symposium on String/M Theory at the Korea Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS) in Seoul. This is my first visit to Korea and I am very excited!
I’ve been meaning to visit what is now a neighboring country for me for a long time. KIAS is on the very modern-looking campus of KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology), where we are also staying in some furnished apartments. The surrounding neighborhood is full of small restaurants, shops and coffee places, a typical and fun student neighborhood.
Close by is Kyung Hee University, a private university that surprised me with unexpected glimpses from the European past. The main administrative building is a huge classicist building sporting Greek columns, while the main auditorium looks like the cathedral of Notre Dame. The main library, last but not least, looks like some medieval English fortress. I am a bit surprised that this ambitious university is drawing its inspiration for their quest for “Global Eminence” from the long gone past of a very far-away place.
Kyung Hee University buildings

Kyung Hee University buildings

Today is only my second day in Korea, so there is still a lot to discover!


Happy Birthday IPMU!

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

IPMU Group Photo

IPMU, the Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe just turned 3.
Since its first birthday, when we were less than half the people shown on this new group photo and the picture was taken in a prefab instead of on the roof of our fancy new building, IPMU has come a long way. I am part of the first generation of postdocs of IPMU. From a close-knit community with a pioneer spirit, our family has expanded a lot. Some colleagues have moved on in the meantime, many of them to permanent positions. Personally, I definitely hope that this trend will continue ;-).

Joining IPMU at a point when it had just come into existence and no one knew how it would have developed was maybe a bit of a risk. But the experiment is definitely working well. Our members are very active and IPMU is internationally visible. As a workplace, it is very pleasant. I especially enjoy the interactions with scientists from other fields and the informal atmosphere. And the support we are getting from the administrative staff is amazing. IPMU is a place were we can truly focus on research and do not need to worry about administrative matters.
Some prospective postdocs might be worried by the fact that it is located in Japan, which counts as a far-away place for many. But, what can I say, I am having a brilliant time here! And for the practical details of getting started with daily life here, again, there’s the helpful administrative staff and our fabulous language teacher!

I am also excited to see how many excellent international visitors we are able to attract. Our regular international workshops plus our liberal travel policy for the members (1-3 months per year abroad) connect IPMU directly to the international scientific community.

It’s been great to watch IPMU grow and thrive in the last two years I’ve worked here, and I am confident that it will continue to do so for the years to come. Let’s say Happy Birthday to IPMU, and all the best for the coming years!


Scientists: Minimalists or Consumerists?

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Recently, I’ve become more aware of the environmental and societal impact of mass consumption. I am examining my own lifestyle choices, but I also wonder where in the spectrum between extreme consumerism and minimalism scientists as a group are falling.
On the whole, I think most of my colleagues are far from the extreme shopping treadmill. Most of us seem to feel that there are things more important than shopping, fancy clothes or cars. I guess most of us consume less than average, but probably not out of environmental awareness, but because our minds revolve around other things. There is no peer pressure towards consumerism in our segment of society, since no one practices it. People run around in age-old saggy sweatshirts and no one cares. Social comparison is pushing us rather towards looking like it did not occur to us to brush our hair because we’ve been thinking so hard about an interesting problem than buying the latest fashion in order to keep up.
There is one notable exception to the rule, namely electronic gadgets. Most of us are a bit computer geeks. If anyone of us is seen sporting the newest fad of anything, it’s usually the newest iPhone, laptop computer or ebook reader. I am myself a little prone to this. My Macbook is very dear to me. If I go on a (non-work related) 2-day trip bringing only my iPod and not my computer, it feels like quite an achievement.
Before becoming more aware of environmental issues, I had already been drawn to a more minimalist lifestyle, since my frequent moves had amply taught me that by accumulating too much stuff I was doing myself a disservice. Plus, I like clean empty spaces and I hate wasting things.
But I realize that I need to examine my lifestyle choices even more closely. For anyone vaguely interested in the topic, I can recommend the book The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. It’s quite an eye-opener.
As a group, scientists are a privileged set, in the sense that we have received a lot of education. Since we cannot hide behind ignorance or claim not to grasp the environmental consequences of our lifestyle choices, I think we need to show a bit of responsibility.

I would be curious to learn from the comments how other scientists think about the matter!


Theoretical Physics and Frustration

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Theoretical physics is known to be an extremely frustrating endeavor. Already as an undergrad, I was warned against that. But why is this the case? There are several reasons, I believe.

  • Too high expectations.
    Many students who decide to do theoretical physics have in mind people like Albert Einstein or similarly imposing role models. And let’s face it, even among the most successful in our trade, having an impact like this is rare. So even those who eventually succeed in getting a tenured position are likely to have fallen short of their original hopes.
    I guess I am at peace with the fact that I’m not the new Einstein, but I can’t shake the feeling that I should be doing better than I am.
  • It’s hard.
    What we do is hard. Before we can even start to do our own bit of research, we have to assimilate an enormous amount of knowledge, consisting of very difficult physical and mathematical concepts. For each new project, we have no acquire new knowledge first. Not knowing is my daily bread. And since as a researcher, I have to constantly push the boundary of what’s known and what I personally am able to do, there is little I can do about it. It’s in the nature of the job. And yet, feeling ignorant all the time really gets to me at times. I never know enough. I seem to constantly be aiming one step ahead of myself.
  • Very little gratification.
    More the opposite. It keeps happening that you follow a lead that ultimately does not bring you further. Sometimes it’s a few days wasted, sometimes a few weeks, and once in a while even a few months.
    The moments when you have a new idea or reach a new result are few. Often, the process is so gradual that you hardly have a feeling of satisfaction at all. You spend months working on a project, but in the end the resulting paper goes largely unremarked by the rest of the world.

The result of the high levels of frustration is that many people give up at some point along the road. It’s true that the job market is not good and that there are far less positions than applicants. But I’ve seen many people leave even though they did not have to.
Others eventually get tenure, but become bitter in the process. Many (even, from my point of view, successful) colleagues seem to have an inexhaustible reservoir of complaints about all the times their work did not get the attention they thought it deserved, when they did not get invited to a conference they feel they would have been the perfect speaker for, not to mention all the jobs they should have gotten instead of someone else who was obviously less qualified.

Like everyone, I suffer from time to time from the accumulated frustration. But I try to hold on as well as I can because I believe that one of the ingredients of succeeding as a theoretical physicist is to be able to keep going in the face of these adversities.
But I try to avoid like hell becoming bitter. Of course thoughts like “How come X gets invited to speak at this conference and not I?” sometimes cross my mind. But I try to fight them. We all have our frustrations to battle with, but I don’t want to make my life miserable by harboring all these extra resentments.


What is exactly a doctorate?

Monday, August 16th, 2010

I usually don’t just post links, but this one really deserves it: check out Matt Might‘s take on what is exactly a doctorate?
It definitely rings true to me.