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Susanne Reffert | IPMU | Japan

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Lessons from a Life on the Move

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

One consequence of pursuing a career in science is moving house (often changing town, country, or even continent) several times, about every two to three years. While moving is always a hassle, one can also take it as a step towards a more essential lifestyle.
I had gone to university in Zurich, where I had grown up. When preparing to move to Berlin for my PhD, I had to face a giant closet full of clothes and stuff I had owned for 15 years, but likely not worn in the last 8. After I had thrown out a huge amount of things, I packed my boxes.
In Berlin, I started out with my first mistake. I went straight to IKEA and furnished my flat with just about everything I had seen in my mom’s house. I later discovered that the household of a grad student has different needs than that of a family. Most things I had bought (especially kitchen stuff) I have never used a single time.
What was a bit special in my case, was that after only one year, I had to move again, since my advisor moved to Munich. Given price levels for housing in Germany, my next flat was only half the size of the one I had had in Berlin. Consequence: most of my new furniture remained in Berlin and about half of the (still too numerous) clothing went to a second hand shop. Yet my new landlord claimed that no one had ever moved into their one-room flat with so much stuff. I became an expert in storing things in improbable places, like on top of cupboards, and under the bed.
Only two years later, I moved to Amsterdam. Another part of my furniture was left behind. I also realized that it was better to just stick with one kind of shampoo, conditioner, or body lotion, because moving five half-used bottles of each is a bit a waste of space. I learned to only buy new stuff when I actually needed it. And I learned to sort through my clothes regularly and give away what I don’t wear anymore.
After two years in Amsterdam, I moved to Japan. And it seemed smarter to use my moving allowance to actually buy what I needed new in Japan, instead of dragging my own (cheap) stuff to the other side of the globe. All remaining furniture and the last of my poor unused kitchen utensils found new owners in Amsterdam.
We arrived in Japan with four suitcases, and had three boxes shipped, that’s all. And this time, we did not make the same mistakes. In Japan, my husband and I only bought things for the household we actually found we had a need for. We know that we’ll have to move again in less than two years. So we bought inexpensive, but decent looking kitchenware and other household items that we can easily let go of when we are leaving. Of course we bought also some nice things that we will keep, for example our beautiful Japanese tea cups. But I think we’ll be leaving with almost as little as we came with.
All my moves, and the moves ahead, have taught me not to be so attached to stuff, because it weighs me down. I actually need rather few things, and the ones I do need for practical reasons, I am happy to use and then pass on. Like this, moving, and life in general, has become a little less troublesome.

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What Should I Tell Them?

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Towards the end of this month, I have a somewhat unusual assignment. I am to give a 1.5 hours lecture to high school students attending a math camp at IPMU. Title: “My Study”. I am supposed to talk about my experience studying and what I work on now. I guess the idea is that the high school students see how the career path of a scientist goes.
Public outreach is of course an important part of our work, so I am happy to do this. But what should I tell them?
What is important to know for someone still in school who is contemplating a career in science?
Even though this is far from filling up 1.5 hours, there are two points I personally find important which I will definitely mention: motivation and perseverance. It takes a lot of genuine interest and curiosity to become a scientist. This is what gives you the necessary motivation. It is more important than being able to perform well on the math exercises that are required in high school (I sucked at that because it was boring). Science it not something you do for the money, you must really love doing it.
The second point is that one must not be discouraged if one doesn’t understand things immediately. It’s normal that new things at first seem very hard and confusing. The point is that it takes perseverance and work to learn any topic in science. When I was studying for my final exams during the last year of university, I realized that even though I hardly ever understood new things immediately during the lectures, eventually I was able to understand everything in my textbooks and lecture notes. It often took some work, picking things apart, and going meticulously through every step in the derivation, but in the end, everything became clear.

I guess coming up with useful things to say during those 1.5 hours is going to take another bit of work and perseverance…. but by now, I should be used to that, right?

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Hello Kyoto!

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

Vermilion Torii on Inari-san (Fushimi Inari)

Vermilion Torii on Inari-san (Fushimi Inari)


One of the fantastic things about our job is that we get to travel. This week, a mini-workshop on Recent Advances in Gauge Theories and CFTs was held at the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics (YITP) in Kyoto. Not only was I interested in the subject matter, I also got to go to one of my most favorite towns ever!
The YITP is part of Kyoto University, but separate from the Physics Department. It is an institute meant as a gathering place for all theoretical physicists in Japan and is running a very active schedule of international conferences and long term workshops.
Apart from the scientific interest, every Japanese loves Kyoto. The old capital, city of temples and gardens, is one of the most amazing places I know. Even though I have been there six times already, I am far from knowing everything worth knowing, and I’d go again any day if offered the possibility!

Garden of Tenryu-ji using Arashiyama as a borrowed landscape (UNESCO World Heritage Site)


The workshop being on Monday and Tuesday, we already arrived there on Saturday. Our explorations included the trails through the many Torii on Inari-san (top picture), a hike up Daimonji-yama and a visit in Arashiyama.
If you ever get the opportunity to go to Kyoto, don’t let it pass by!
Bamboo Walkway in Arashiyama

Bamboo Walkway in Arashiyama

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Loss of Focus

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Back when I started my diploma thesis (more or less equivalent to a master’s thesis) in theoretical physics, I found I had a problem. How could a person spend all day thinking? It was so tiring for my brain!
Earlier on, I had done a semester project with the laser physicists. There, when you were a bit at a loss about what to do next, you could just sit down and clean your optics very thoroughly. You could give your brain a break while still feeling you were doing something useful.
In theoretical physics, there’s no cleaning of the optics to do. You’re lucky if you have some calculation to type! If you’re brain is too tired to think, often there’s no other work-related thing you can do. And I felt terrible! I remember once sitting outside the theoretical physics building during the time of my diploma thesis, taking a break, because I had to. A guy who was already a PhD student passed by and I confessed to him my inability to keep thinking for 8 hours straight. He just laughed and said it was okay to take breaks and that I would just get used to it.
And he was right. I guess, partly my brain adapted to the task, and partly I just stopped stressing about it. I still can’t think in a very focused fashion for hours on end. But that’s okay. When I’m really at a loss of what to do, I sort through my pile of scientific papers and clean up my desk. When I just need a few minutes, I do something else like watering the office plants or so.
There are countless hours spent by the theory community surfing the web, reading the blogs, or facebook . But that’s okay. In our work, it’s not just the hours worked that count. Sometimes you work for hours and don’t get anywhere, and at other times you can make a major breakthrough in five minutes. It’s the quality that counts. And a rested brain is more likely to produce good ideas.

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Combating the Sedentary Lifestyle?

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Recently, a study led by Prof. David Dunstan has shown that sitting for long hours is detrimental to our health, even if we otherwise exercise regularly. If you think about it, it’s not even that surprising, though it’s unpleasant news for those of us who work out regularly before or after work. Despite our efforts, we’re still in the danger zone!

And let’s face it, the lifestyle of a theoretical physicist (and I am guessing also of most experimental particle physicists) is definitely sedentary. Several websites went on to collect tips on how to bring a bit of movement into our daily office lives (e.g. some older tips here, and for more extreme tastes, here). Examples are pacing when you’re on the phone, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or passing by the office of a colleague instead of writing an e-mail. I even once read the advice of drinking lots of water (which makes for more frequent trips to the bathroom).
Now I hardly ever make phone calls or need to see people in other offices, so what would work for me? I guess the single best opportunity for a theorist not to be sitting down all the time is to discuss with collaborators on the blackboard instead of at the desk on a sheet of paper. You’re standing up at least, and you have to move your arms to write.
What sometimes works for me is printing out my reading materials and reading them standing up instead of reading them on the screen, sitting down (I have the added benefit of having the printer rather far away. On the other hand, I end up killing more trees like that). Apart from this, it’s a though one. Computer work is computer work. I try to make an effort to stand up at least once every hour and stretch my arms and shoulders a little. But that’s probably hardly enough.

How do other physicists get moving during their working hours? Are you worried about your sedentary lifestyle at all, and if yes, how do you fight it?

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Intuition

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

The Oxford Dictionary defines intuition as “the apparent ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason.” We all have these hunches about how certain things will behave, which, mostly unconsciously, are based on our earlier experience with this type of thing. If you see for example a car approaching on the street, you can easily tell whether or not you’ll have time to cross the street before or not, because this situation keeps repeating itself. Our intuition is formed by our experience.

This is the problem with forming an intuition for physical theories that are far removed from our daily life experience. Our judgement is good for Newtonian physics. We rarely experience directly an object of relativistic speeds (i.e. near the speed of light), let alone move at relativistic speeds ourselves. And when have you last come close to an object heavy enough to bring general relativity into play, say for example a black hole like it can be found at the centers of many galaxies?
This is why the predictions of General Relativity seem incredible and strange at first, they just have nothing in common with the view of the world we have formed based on our daily experience. An effect like time dilation never happens to us (while on the other hand, every child is familiar with the Doppler effect).
The same is of course true for Quantum Mechanics. We simply cannot experience directly the behavior of single elementary particles.

But the case is not hopeless. Luckily, the human brain is so powerful that we need not rely solely on our direct sensory experience to form an intuition. It is enough to think about a certain abstract concept and its implications for extended periods of time to form an expectation for how similar concepts will behave. Experiences can take place exclusively in your head, they will be an equally good guide as the intuitions that were formed on the basis of real life experiences. Already after one semester of studying General Relativity, its implications seem much less mind-boggling than when we heard about them the first time. But this is merely the beginning. If you have spent a lot of time doing a particular kind of calculation, you will know that a certain result is wrong just by looking at it, and before re-checking everything step by step.

Sometimes it is said about a famous scientist that he or she has this great “physical intuition”. Guess what: they were not born with that. They simply spent a very large amount of time thinking about their physical models, toying with example calculations and tinkering around with them, wherever they were, including scribbling on napkins while waiting at the restaurant. They are able to see connections others could not see because they have seen so many similar things in their life as scientists. This acquired knowledge needn’t manifest itself as a rational thought process. It can really feel the same as just “having a hunch”, it’s having a vague, fuzzy feeling about how a certain thing should work or how some object should behave, even if this object is an abstract concept.
I have already seen this kind of intuition in action in more senior people I have worked with. And sometimes it even happens to myself that I find myself telling someone that a certain thing should work like this because I somehow just know that it must behave like that.

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Are You an Infovore?

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

The Urban Dictionary defines an infovore as “A person that has a voracious appetite for information”. This term is pretty popular on the blogosphere these days.
The people who actually coined the term are neuroscientists: Irving Biederman of the University of Southern California in University Park and Edward Vessel of New York University. Their findings show that humans are natural infovores. When the human brain processes information, endorphins are released, giving us a feeling of pleasure.
It is probably not wrong to assume that people who are drawn to a carrier in science have a particularly strong predilection for processing and interpreting information.
Even though I am a theorist, I am fascinated by data, and I love how much data is freely available to the public via the internet. Be it astronomical data via the Sloane Digital Sky Survey which will have a dataset of 230 million celestial objects, or from the Hubble Space Telescope, to mention just two scientific data sources.

I would definitely classify myself as an infovore, and I have a confession to make: I am addicted to the weather forecast. I check the satellite image and the rain radar echos several times a day. I am just thrilled to have access to up to date satellite and radar data. It might sound silly, but when you think about it, it’s actually pretty cool and wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago. We’re living in a time in which huge amounts of data are being compiled (the LHC alone produces about 1.3GB per second!), a huge wealth for all flavors of science. The challenge is to find ways of effectively extracting useful information from it.

Check out a very cool instance of automated processing of astronomical images which is accessible to everyone: Any picture of the night sky submitted to the pool of the astrometry group on Flickr is run through an engine, which posts a comment to the picture with the astronomical data of the depicted objects, and adds notes directly on the image which identify the visible objects. I think that’s pretty neat!

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On Interactions

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

For the theorist, interacting with other theorists is one of the most important sources of creative input. Our main currency is ideas, and they are seldom conceived in isolation. It is mainly for the sake of meeting and discussing with colleagues that we travel to conferences or visit other departments to give seminar talks. The ideas for almost all of the papers I have coauthored in my postdoc years have been sparked by discussions with people outside my own group.
One of the leading themes of IPMU is fostering interactions among its researchers. That’s why we have this huge interaction space in the center of our new building, and that’s why we are being lured out from our offices with coffee, tea and cookies every day.
What is special about IPMU is that it wants to foster interactions between all its researchers, be they mathematicians, particle theorists, observational astronomers, cosmologists, string theorists or particle experimentalists. IPMU is not organized in groups, but as a community. This is really different from all the places I have been before, where you were meant to talk mostly to your own crowd and were being looked at strangely for being caught talking to the people of the “wrong” floor (which, incidentally, is also why office spaces at IPMU mix all disciplines).
This community feeling has a number of positive effects. I don’t interact mostly with my peers, which form a small and highly competitive community, where people have a close eye on each other’s work and jealously guard their own. Here, I am friends with mathematicians, particle phenomenologists, experimentalists and astrophysicists, and, incidentally, also with a few fellow string theorists. This mix relaxes the atmosphere during tea time a lot.
Hanging out with a more varied crowd also gets me more exposed to other forms of physics that are not my daily bread. I am more ready to attend seminars outside my own field.
Of course people who have a good time are happier and will work better. But does actual science come from these interdisciplinary interactions?
For myself, I can say that our last paper was coauthored with a mathematician, and two more from the last two years had benefited greatly from discussions with statistical physicists. For me, it works.

I guess that giving us the possibility to interact across different fields is a way of preparing a fertile ground for great new ideas. They might not come immediately, but they find an inviting environment. And to tackle the important questions about our universe, good ideas are needed.

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Yay! We moved!

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

The IPMU Building

The IPMU Building


On Monday, I packed all my belongings living in my office desk and bookshelf into boxes, only to unpack them again one hour later. Why would I do such a thing? Because on Monday, finally, everyone could move into the new IPMU building! It’s all brand new, and right now, there’s still a lot of unpacking and putting up of furniture going on.

The Interaction Area

The Interaction Area

Until now, IPMU was a bunch of people dispersed over two prefabs and different floors of the General Research Building of Tokyo University on Kashiwa campus. The cohesion of our institute was only guaranteed by meeting up at tea break every day, and by the enthusiasm to be part of a new endeavor of everyone involved. Now, IPMU has become a place as well. Apart from the offices, a lecture hall, several seminar and conference rooms and a library which promises to come out very nice, the new building features a big interaction area in the center reaching up three stories, a terrace with chairs and tables, and an amphitheater-like structure on the roof. At night, the angled metal structure on the roof is lit up to give off a dark blue, eerie glow.

This is easily the nicest building I’ve ever worked in so far. The office situation during the 15 months I spent in the prefab was less than ideal, but that’s a thing of the past now, and I guess it’s part of the price one has to pay for being a pioneer. Now, postdocs share in two the shiny new offices of the new building. Everyone is very excited to finally be in the new building, and to finally be all together. We can’t wait to see the finished interior and to take possession of everything. This move is a big step forward for IPMU.

A bit like from the Sci-Fi movies...

A bit like from the Sci-Fi movies...

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A Breath of Relief

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Budget cuts in science unfortunately happen all over the world.
Over in Japan, we all got very worried last November, when the new government announced the intention to cut several science programs by 30-50% and even recommending termination for some. At IPMU, we all wrote letters to the Minister of Education, trying to explain how a big budget cut would endanger our new and so far very successful institute. We contacted colleagues and friends all over the world, asking them to write as well. Fortunately, the echo was very good. Very many scientists from abroad wrote to the minister. I don’t know the exact number, but the vast majority of the 900 letters sent in favor of the WPI program, of which we are part, were sent on behalf of IPMU!
This seems to have had an effect. The numbers for next year’s budget are out now. Several programs received severe cuts, but in the end, the existing WPI institutes (including IPMU) will be cut only by 3.6%. This is definitely a number we can live with! In the face of the overall negative climate towards science funding, we got away with only a scratch.
This doesn’t mean we can lean back now. The current decision only affects the next fiscal year, starting from April 2010. To get proper financial support also in the future, we have to keep doing a good job and keep convincing people that having an active, internationally visible research institute like IPMU is important both for Japanese science and Japan as a country. But the year begins well. Last week, the Vice Minister of Education visited IPMU, and next week, we will move into our fancy new building! Things are looking good, let’s keep our fingers crossed for the future!

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