• John
  • Felde
  • University of Maryland
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • USLHC
  • USLHC
  • USA

  • James
  • Doherty
  • Open University
  • United Kingdom

Latest Posts

  • Andrea
  • Signori
  • Nikhef
  • Netherlands

Latest Posts

  • CERN
  • Geneva
  • Switzerland

Latest Posts

  • Aidan
  • Randle-Conde
  • Université Libre de Bruxelles
  • Belgium

Latest Posts

  • TRIUMF
  • Vancouver, BC
  • Canada

Latest Posts

  • Laura
  • Gladstone
  • MIT
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Steven
  • Goldfarb
  • University of Michigan

Latest Posts

  • Fermilab
  • Batavia, IL
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Seth
  • Zenz
  • Imperial College London
  • UK

Latest Posts

  • Nhan
  • Tran
  • Fermilab
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Alex
  • Millar
  • University of Melbourne
  • Australia

Latest Posts

  • Ken
  • Bloom
  • USLHC
  • USA

Latest Posts


Warning: file_put_contents(/srv/bindings/215f6720ac674a2d94a96e55caf4a892/code/wp-content/uploads/cache.dat): failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /home/customer/www/quantumdiaries.org/releases/3/web/wp-content/plugins/quantum_diaries_user_pics_header/quantum_diaries_user_pics_header.php on line 170

Susanne Reffert | IPMU | Japan

Read Bio

Views of Fuji

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

100806160449
Summer season is often synonymous to conference season. And in Japan, conference organizers know how to escape the summer heat for a few days. That’s why we find ourselves this week at the foot of Mt. Fuji. The seminar house where the Summer Institute 2010 on String Theory and Cosmology takes place, is called Fuji Calm, and calm it is. The balmy mountain air is only disturbed by sounds of insects and birds. The fact that the facilities are hovering on the brink of mild disrepair is amply made up by the fact that Mt. Fuji thrones right in front. The view is truly stunning. Yet Fuji is a bit of a diva and only shows itself in a good mood early in the morning and around sunset. The rest of the day it can only be identified by the heap of clouds under which it is hiding.

Share

Visiting Nagoya

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

100728183919
Two weeks after returning from our big European trip, we did a very short trip within Japan: we visited the string theorists at Nagoya University, or short, Meidai. (You may wonder how this abbreviation comes about. The Japanese name of Nagoya University is Nagoya Daigaku, 名古屋大学. The first kanji of the two words are 名大. The syllable “mei” is the alternative reading of the first Kanji, which is pronounced “na” in Nagoya.)
100727174224 Even though Nagoya is not a typical tourist destination and we were there for work, we managed to squeeze in some early morning sightseeing. The earlier the better, given the scorching summer heat that reached 37 degrees Celsius in the afternoon. The picture above was taken in Nagoya’s downtown, Sakae.
The campus itself is located at the eastern edge of town and looks very modern. And given the amount of construction that is going on there, it will continue to do so for a while.
More than for its sights, Nagoya is famous for its food. The spicy chicken wings, even though very tasty, are definitely a challenge for the digestive system.

Share

Back in Amsterdam

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Prinsengracht This week, I am back in Amsterdam, attending the Amsterdam Summer Workshop. The attendance is of a very high caliber, and as for the lectures, there is one highlight chasing the next. Apart from that, it’s great to see my old colleagues again.
On Monday, my former boss Robbert Dijkgraaf, the most dynamic and surely most charming ever president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, handed the Lorentz Medal to Edward Witten. He in turn regaled the workshop participants two days later with insights about the path integral of quantum mechanics.

We’re unusually lucky with the weather these days. A Dutch newspaper already ran an article on the effects of the “tropical heat” (read temperatures above 25 degrees for several days in a row) on humans and animals earlier this week.
I use the long evenings to cycle around town (how else can you get around here than by bike), revisit the green parrots of Vondelpark (definitely not an indigenous species, but somehow they found their ecological niche there), sample the highlights of Dutch cuisine such as bitterballen, kroketten and pancakes, and envy the people who go for joyrides in the canals in their own boats.

Share

CERN and Surroundings

Thursday, June 24th, 2010
Meyrin, seen across the fields

Meyrin, seen across the fields

It’s good to be back at CERN again, it’s a good place for work. As usual, we had fruitful discussions with people here.
For once, we are not staying in the CERN hostel (it was fully booked because summer is a really busy period here). Instead, we are staying in nearby Meyrin, and are discovering for the first time the local beauties during evening strolls. The hot and humid Japanese summer has really taught me to appreciate summer in Switzerland! This week, every day has been sunny, but still it’s pleasantly fresh. After six years away from Switzerland, I am now rediscovering the local bird songs, the rustling of wheat fields in the wind and the smell of Swiss summer meadows. When I lived in Switzerland, I did not particularly appreciate these things, but coming back from abroad, I am experiencing everything in a different way now.
At the moment, Meyrin is a big construction site. But once they are done, there will be a direct tram line from the train station of Geneva to CERN! The tram will take people also directly to the University of Geneva, which will surely help in creating synergies.

Soon, we’ll be off to Amsterdam, crossing our fingers that it won’t be too rainy.

Share

The Traveling Circus

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

Madrid - Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor - Madrid


The time has come again to leave home and IPMU for several weeks and temporarily embrace a more nomadic life form. Just as when I first started writing for the Quantum Diaries, I am “on tour” again, traveling from one conference or research institution to the next. As some put it, it’s the traveling circus.
Our first stop was the XVI. European Workshop on String Theory, held in the Real Jardin Botanico in Madrid. A beautiful location and an exciting city! Both I and my husband gave short talks. Unfortunately, the weather fell somewhat short of the expectations one has for Spain in June, but we had at least one nice day to take some pictures ;-). Overall, the meeting and the week in Madrid were a good start for our tour! It’s always good to meet colleagues again that I have not seen in months and hear about the newest developments. Next week, I’ll be back at CERN again.
Parque del Buen Retiro - Madrid

Parque del Buen Retiro - Madrid

Share

The Two-Body Problem

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

It seems that almost everyone of my colleagues is either single or in a long-distance relationship. Exceptions usually last only about two years. This is due to the international nature of our job, and the fact that for the first several years in a scientific career, we have to change country, often continent, every two to three years. More often than not, partners can’t just drop everything and tag along.
Personally, I have lived in long-distance relationships ever since I changed countries to start my PhD. Only the last one and a half years have been an exception.
My husband and I met in my office in Munich, and the three months we spent in the same office were the only time for the next three years that we spent at the same place. Unfortunately, we weren’t even together at this point, we were merely concentrating on finishing our respective theses. Then, a period of frequent flying followed. Luckily, we lived “only” 1000km apart and there are lots of low-cost airlines in Europe. For the next two years, we managed to meet every weekend. But this whole traveling business was rather tiring and not exactly what we imagined for our relationship. Even the first year of our marriage, we lived apart!
Still, we were among the lucky ones. Once, having lunch at a big table at a conference, we discovered that of all present, we actually had the shortest commute! Just can’t compete with Sweden to Boston. Also here at IPMU, many of our colleagues are far from their partners (even spouses), and sometimes the distance between them is closer to 10’000 km than to 1000.
That we now share again an office makes us the envy of many. And it is owing to a unique opportunity that presented itself to us: even though we both had one more year to go in our respective postdocs, we applied to join IPMU, which was just opening its doors and had as many as 20 open postdoc positions.
Whether we will manage to find also our next postdocs in the same place is unfortunately very unclear, given that we live in an economy where even finding a single position is not obvious…
Sadly, universities help with the placement of spouses often at best at the faculty level, and also there I see many cases where things don’t work out. Greater efforts in this direction would certainly benefit the ratio of females in academic positions who have children. Raising a child while working in a highly challenging and competitive research job seems daunting enough as it is. But with spouses living thousands of kilometers apart, it becomes a near-impossibility.

Share

The Open Mind (or how you learn to accept pretty much anything)

Friday, May 28th, 2010

One thing I have learned since starting my PhD is not to hold on to preconceptions. Of course we all work based on an idea of what the world is like. But as a scientist, you have to be ready to relinquish your theories in the blink of an eye if evidence shows otherwise. While in some professions, one can maybe get away without, it’s a lesson one learns by necessity when working in research.
There was a time during my PhD when my convictions about the problem I was working on got overturned about twice daily. All these radical changes in my ideas were kind of hard on me then, but I got used to this. It seems that even in everyday life, I now accept it much more easily if things turn out to be different from what I thought. I seem to be less disappointed.
I am not saying here that one should not have any ideas or assumptions, or call it theories, about the world. What I mean is that one should be able to let go of them without regrets the second they don’t fit anymore with new knowledge we have acquired.

Another important trait of a scientist is to be open to new ideas and solutions. Any ideas. Many problems were solved in ways that at first seemed very unconventional and maybe strange. By only sticking with what has worked in the past, one might miss important clues.
Some friends of mine take advantage of this, telling me some incredible stories and then laughing at me when I hesitate instead of immediately rejecting it as a lie. My brain somehow got used to admitting any idea to a thorough check (obviously I usually figure out after a few seconds that it was a hoax).
Looks like some aspects of the scientific open mind can also have their pitfalls in daily life ;-).

Share

A Day in the Life

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Sometimes, may relatives ask me what I do during a normal day. Somehow, many people can’t quite imagine what a theoretical physicist does all day long. Even though I am often guilty of not answering these questions in much detail, let me give it a try here.
I usually arrive at the office around 8:30, which is rather untypical for my breed (many colleagues show up anytime between 10 am and 2 pm, but then stay until late). I first read my e-mails and some blogs, and finally go through the new preprints on the hep-th (High Energy Physics – THeory) preprint arXiv. With this, I start my work day. We have lunch with our colleagues at twelve, and at 3 pm, we have a cookie break, where we meet with everyone else from IPMU. A few times a week, there are seminars to attend. I leave the office around 6 pm, then often do some sports, and think some more about my projects at home.

How I actually spend the bulk of my time depends largely on which phase I am in with the project I am working on.
In the first phase, which can last several months, I spend most of my time reading earlier works on the subject I am trying to get into, or looking online for suitable references to read. Before you can do something new, you have to know very well what has already been done, and you have to have a very good understanding of the subject matter. When entering into a new subject I previously knew very little about, it takes me usually about three months before I can start doing my own calculations. If my project treats a topic I am already familiar with, this time period is much shorter.
In the second phase, I have a precise problem to solve. I spend time doing calculations, which depending on the type of problem I might do on paper, or using the computer (usually Mathematica). I also spend a lot of time discussing with my collaborators, or colleagues knowledgeable in the particular sub-field. Ideally, this happens in person, but often also via skype, instant messenger, by e-mail, or even using google wave. This phase can take anything from weeks to months.
In the third phase, the results are written down and transformed into a scientific paper (often, there is a partial overlap between phases 2 and 3). Like most others, I use LaTeX to write my papers, which is great for formulae and generally nice-looking typesetting. When several people need to edit the draft, we use a subversion repository, which keeps track of all the changes and merges files that have been edited by different parties. This last phase usually takes several weeks.
The shortest time in which I have finished a paper was two weeks (but after about one year of work on closely related topics), the longest was about two years (but working on other projects in parallel). The rule of thumb is that when I think I am almost done and can submit in one week, it takes about three weeks longer than I thought ;-).

Often, people think I do mostly computer work, but this is only true in phase 3 (or phase 2, if I need to use Mathematica a lot). The reading and calculating parts can often be done on paper.
Of course, one often has more than one ongoing project, so the different types of work can get mixed. It’s useful to have something else to do when one gets stuck on one project, which is another thing that happens regularly. The worst part of the work is when I have a problem and don’t know how to solve it, and I just randomly poke around and read around, without knowing what to do. The easiest is when I know exactly what to do (read this thing, to a straightforward calculation, write down results, etc.), then I can just sit down and do it. The best is the part when I find the solution to a problem I have (but you probably guessed it, these short moments make up a tiny fraction of the time spent working).

Of course, there are also some administrative things, or work that this not directly aimed at a new publication, that need to be taken care of: submitting papers to journals, sometimes reviewing other people’s papers, organizing seminars, organizing business trips to conferences, preparing seminar talks, teaching duties, group meetings, etc. While for postdocs, these things take comparatively little time, many professors do little else! Luckily, I am still able to dedicate most of my time on research!

Share

A Different Point of View

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

View from the physics building of NTU

View from the physics building of NTU


When I look out of the window from my office chair, I can see the world’s formerly tallest building.
Because this week, I am sitting in an office on the top floor of the new physics building of National Taiwan University (NTU), and what I see is Taipei 101, its top sometimes in, sometimes out of the low hanging clouds. (Yesterday, for once, I was looking the other way around.)
We are spending ten days in Taiwan, giving three talks between the two of us. Apart from NTU, we have also spent one day at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU), which is walking distance from NTU, and later this week, we will spend some days at National Tsing-Hua University in Hsinchu.
So far, we’ve had a great time. Everyone has been extremely kind to us. It’s really true what people say about the Taiwanese (namely that they’re extremely nice). Further reasons to like Taiwan are the lush tropical vegetation, the dumplings, and very importantly, pearl milk tea!

Share

Amazing LHC

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Yesterday, even though 10’000 km away from CERN, I witnessed the events at LHC live, from my computer. Thanks to the LHC status screens and the excellent live webcast from CERN, I was able to join in with the excitement in the control rooms as the beam energy was ramped up and the beams were finally aligned for collisions, as well as the disappointment when the beams were dumped earlier on. Quite a unique experience!
I really feel with everyone who is involved more deeply with this challenging endeavor, and I am even a little envious that in theoretical physics, we have nothing as exciting going on that could take our breath away like this.
Even though my daily work as a theorist, and my current research in particular, is fairly far removed from the events at LHC, I am still a particle physicists, and what’s happening now at LHC is simply the single most important progress that’s been made in particle physics in years. It’s new physics in the making, and we’ve all been waiting for it for a long time. The promise of LHC has been with me since my undergraduate time, when LEP II was still running.
Apart from this, I have to say I am quite fascinated with this complex machine, and the webcast has taught me some more things about its inner workings.
All of the particle physics community (the theorists included), will be watching LHC for the months and years to come. What will it teach us?

Share