Category Archives: Opinions

QS rankings 2018 and the UoA Physics Department

The QS World University rankings for 2018 were announced very recently. It is always interesting to see some of the data regarding overall performance and assessment by the QS foundation. The latter uses their own algorithm and set of criteria to manage available bibliographical data (in collaboration with Elsevier as I read), thus producing a ranking list for several hundreds of universities around the World.

Regarding Physics I am interested in, our National and Kapodistrian University of Athens Physics Department is placed in positions 401-500, maintaining its status in the top-500 universities of the world. However, according to the QS criteria, UoA Physics is placed in the last position among Greek Physics Departments. See results and a screenshot below:

Putting aside the fact that NTUA (ranked in 151-200) is not a pure Physics Department, AUTh occupies the second place, while U.Crete is in No3.

Amid non-existent research funding, personnel reduction to a 40% with respect to what it was 3-4 years ago, turbulence with new legislation and “reforms”

I am personally very happy that NTUA Physics is still in the top-500. A different ranking based on another set of criteria (excluding from points the number of foreign students and faculty, mutlilingual programs, international character etc) has put the Physics Dept of UoA in the 101-150 worldwide for 2016 and 76-100 in 2017. Not bad for what we, as faculty, experience in our miserable everyday lifes.

DIY Science

I started my scientific adventures a quarter of a century ago. I am not very old, but I am not young either. When I started, I was full of dreams, ambitions, plans for the future. Some of them have come true, some others not, some others had to be adjusted as time went by and maturity kicked in. But my passion for science-studying, making and disseminating have played all central roles in what one could call an academic career after all this time.

In this exciting trip I’ve had several mishaps, several failures, many major and minor disappointments. I’ve lost friends and colleagues, I’ve earned others. For sure I found great mentors that shed bright lights on the tough road ahead and made me feel comfortably about myself and science. I am deeply thankful for all the guidance and training and education they gave me.

This coming Wednesday is my anniversary No. 7 at the University of Athens as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Physics. For those who do not know me, what I do for living (and fun!) is related to studying the fundamental constituents of matter, the ones forming the very big and very small bodies we see in the universe. Nuclear Physics it is. Two years ago I got my precious tenure, essentially having next-to-none financial support by the university or the Greek state to form a group, build an instrument or travel abroad to collaborate with foreign colleagues in big labs. Luckily enough, some mobility money from EU have helped a lot to keep in touch with current trends, participate in international collaborations and important experiments.

Promotion to the next academic rank in Greece is so much more political than other places I know. You can leave a large portion of your scientific life in what I call “an isomeric state of rank” if you disturb ierarchy or accidentally get in the center of internal political turbulence (oh, it can get nasty if you have the unfortunate luck to have big egos fighting big egos around here). But what bothers me most is that you have no means to prove yourself in the real field that should matter and could boost your career: research.

I am sick and tired with the conditions I try to do research here. I have dug out all kind of boxes in the stockroom with small detectors, old NIM units, bad cables, broken magnets and power supplies (I even found an old HPGe detector) being abandonded literally for decades to rot, I have taken them out, tested them, repaired them, upgraded them and put them in operation. I am proud of this DIY way of doing science, educating young guys, motivating them to put their hands into greese and dirt and get blood on their fingers and finally do something with that damn thing. But i am really sick and tired. This is not research of the future, this is not the way to drive the scientific potential of the best Physics Dept in the country to new endeavors, this is unfair for them and for me.

Last week, I finished writing  and submitted my first proposal to a Greek funding agency. I have spent my Christmas vacation to write the whole thing up, do the math in money, plan the proper activities, all for just the possibility to have 40k EUR for a few small detectors and a magnet. Not even close for what I really need, but it is the only chance that has been given to me and the rest of the scientific community in Greece since 2010, after the crisis has started. The first Open Call for Proposals offered by the Greek State. I, we, hope it won’t be the last for another 8-10 years. Whatever the chances to get through evaluation, I see this as my last opportunity to build something new from scratch, something completely mine. Before I call it quits and fly off from this rotten, pathetic system and do something useful for myself and the society. 

All this sounds weird: I used to love the DIY way of doing things…

(anyone hiring out there?)

Πτυχιούχοι 2017 – Μερικά στατιστικά

Ημέρα ορκωμοσίας για το Τμήμα Φυσικής του ΕΚΠΑ σήμερα και εκτός από τη λάμψη των πτυχιούχων μας και τη γιορτινή ατμόσφαιρα που επικρατούσε υπάρχουν και οι αριθμοί. Ορκίστηκαν συνολικά 127 φοιτητές μας, ολοκληρώνοντας επιτυχώς τις εξεταστικές περιόδους Ιουνίου 2017 (63 άτομα) και Σεπτεμβρίου 2017 (64 άτομα). Στο παρακάτω γράφημα φαίνεται η κατανομή του αριθμού των φοιτητών και φοιτητριών μας σε σχέση με το συνολικό χρόνο φοίτησης. Σημειώνεται ότι η φοίτηση είναι τετραετής. Στο γράφημα Ιούνιος και Σεπτέμβριος λογίζονται το ίδιο σε ό,τι αφορά στον ακέραιο χρόνο φοίτησης πχ (6 έτη φοίτησης και στις δυο περιπτώσεις και όχι 6 και 6.5).

Πτυχιούχοι Φυσικής ΕΚΠΑ 2017

Οι τάσεις είναι ξεκάθαρες. Υπάρχει μια ισχυρή συγκέντρωση των πτυχιούχων γύρω από τα 6 έτη φοίτησης. Ο κύριος όγκος φοίτησης είναι ανάμεσα στα 4 και στα 8 έτη, ενώ υπάρχει εύρος στην κατανομή που εκτείνεται ως τα 18 έτη, παρά τη μικρή συχνότητα εμφάνισης.

Προσωπικά, δεν είμαι ικανοποιημένος από τη συγκεκριμένη κατανομή για διάφορους λόγους, κυρίως γιατί δηλώνει ότι υπάρχει μια τάση συσσώρευσης φοιτητών λόγω αδυναμίας να κρατηθούν σε συγχρονισμό με τη ροή της διδασκαλίας, όπως είναι κατανεμημένη στα εξάμηνα του προγράμματος σπουδών. Πρέπει όμως να τονιστεί ότι δεν υπάρχουν προαπαιτούμενα και οι παρακολουθήσεις δεν είναι υποχρεωτικές. Υπό αυτή τη σκοπιά και σε συνδυασμό με τις “παραδοσιακές” παθογένειες του εκπαιδευτικού μας συστήματος μια τέτοια καμπύλη δε φαντάζει περίεργη.

Κρατάω το ότι χρειαζόμαστε δουλειά ακόμη, τόσο οι πανεπιστημιακοί δάσκαλοι, όσο και οι φοιτητές. Οι τελευταίοι πρέπει επιπλέον να δείξουν σοβαρότητα στις σπουδές τους με τακτική παρακολούθηση και μελέτη καθ’όλη τη διάρκεια του εξαμήνου. Κατά την ταπεινή μου άποψη, είναι δύο καθοριστικές παράμετροι γα την επιτυχία στο Τμήμα Φυσικής.

STÅRISSE

Το Stårisse δεν είναι ένα συνηθισμένο βιβλίο επιστημονικής φαντασίας. Είναι ένα πολύπτυχο ανάγνωσμα κινούμενο σε πολλαπλά επίπεδα δράσης και θεματολογίας, με έναν ακαθόριστο αριθμό συμβολισμών. Είναι μια περιπέτεια διάρκειας, αλλά κι ένας χρησμός για το μέλλον. Μια ιστορία του φανταστικού (είναι άραγε;), αλλά και μια παρακαταθήκη για τον πολιτισμό μας. Είναι, πάνω από όλα, ένα βιβλίο που διαβάζεται ευχάριστα από την αρχή ως το τέλος και είμαι σίγουρος ότι θα ικανοποιήσει όλους τους αναγνώστες που θα το πάρουν στα χέρια τους.

Η εισαγωγή της έννοιας τού χρόνιου, ενός υποατομικού σωματιδίου, φορέα και κυρίαρχου του χρόνου που γνωρίζουμε και βιώνουμε είναι ένας πολύ πετυχημένος συγκερασμός φαντασίας και πραγματικότητας και δεν έχει να ζηλέψει τίποτε από εμπνεύσεις που άλλαξαν την πορεία της σύγχρονης φυσικής. Η “τιτανομαχία” που σε καθηλώνει με τη δράση της χαρίζει ένα χολυγουντιανό στυλ στο βιβλίο, αλλά σε βάζει να σκεφτείς και να φανταστείς αναλογίες με την τιτανομαχία που περιγράφεται στην Αρχαία Ελληνική Γραμματεία.

Το STÅRISEE είναι πλέον διαθέσιμο στα βιβλιοπωλεία. Είχα την τιμή και τη χαρά να το διαβάσω στην πρώτη πρόχειρη έκδοση σε ηλεκτρονική μορφή που μου εμπιστεύτηκε χωρίς κανένα ενδοιασμό ο Γιάννης Αργυρός (ο ένας εκ των δύο συγγραφέων, ο άλλος είναι ο Γιάννης Χριστοδούλου) το καλοκαίρι που μας πέρασε. Έχοντας πλέον στα χέρια μου την καλαίσθητη έντυπη έκδοση από τις εκδόσεις “Πηγή” βρήκα την ευκαιρία να επισκεφτώ ξανά το κείμενο στα σημεία που με συνεπήραν. Περισσότερα, από κοντά, την ερχόμενη Πέμπτη στις 22.12.2016 στη συνεδριακή αίθουσα του Aegean College, στις 18’00, όπου θα προλογίσω μαζί με τους εκλεκτούς συναδέλφους Μαρία Τζάνη και Ξενοφώντα Μουσσά, την επίσημη παρουσίαση του βιβλίου. Ως τότε, σας προτείνω να δείτε το βίντεο προώθησης που ετοίμασαν οι ίδιοι οι συγγραφείς.

Be polite, but unleash the beast

It is very common in academia to form large collaborations under a common umbrella to attack open scientific questions. In this funfair of people all kind of personal characters are expected to show up sooner or later, everyone having their own beliefs, personal agenda and strange ideas. I have often dealt with numerous people at labs during experiments, where besides the variety of experience ranging from maximum (kind Professores Diplodontus) to mininum (kind Ambitiosus Ranae), fatigue, jet lag, nutritional habits and psychological mood kicks in to affect the balance of the working environment. And while it is always nice to have the Joker and the Smart Ass to cheer you up during long and difficulat shifts, it is not nice to have them during manuscript preparation.

This phase, the preparation of a publication, is what is utterly wanted in academia as a proof of efficiency and scientific progress. Academia has lost the true spirit that owns its existence, too, dominated by bureaucrats, politicians and business managers who typically have absolutely NO SENSE what a scientific discovery is, unless it attracts attention of the public or brings in money when exploited in the markets. Papers are prepared carefully, but mastering the quality of the final manuscript is an art by itself. Not all people have the efficiency to put three words correctly in the text to convey the essence of the discovery to the readership of the scientifc journal. Not all collaborators agree on the argumentation, not all discuss in polite terms resolutions needed to answer the Editor’s comments. That is all ok, it’s part of the business. Patience and good wit is important virtues at this phase.

What I find, however, extremely annoyning is those Jokers and Smart Asses (see earlier) to disturb the production with the witty interventions. The situation worsens when some of them think much higher of themselves than reality trying to impose “insights” on the research completed. Even worse, when you realize they have been just Passengers without any (I stress the work ANY) contribution from time zero to end. When situations like these develop, I have just one spontaneous reaction: unleash the beast. Unmask them, insult them, kick them out, kick them as hard as you can, throw them out. It sounds brutal and barbaric; agree. However, it lasts just a very short time compared to the malignant actions spanning the period of time you have been “collaborating”.

So, unleash the beast and feel no guilt. Cause you are right. 

Athens Physics graduates (some stats)

With the upcoming “walk the walk” graduation ceremony approaching fast, I am taking the opportunity as I have already done again last semester to take a quick look on some stats, focusing on the number of years from first enrollment.

The information is clear itself (reminder: the Physics Dept. is a 8-semester long program of study, ie 4 years).

Readers not so familiar with the conditions in the Greek Universities have to consider the frequent interruptions caused by the students in line with the decisions taken in their general assembly. It is beyond the scope of this post to judge those decision. However, this situation has resulted in significant drawback from real class time and consequent delays to students looking forward to graduating on time. Nevertheless, I am quite happy to see 5 students finishing in just over 4 years.

Data have been found in this list of graduates.

Academics: how not to lose your personal style in the era of social media

As a University Professor in a huge Department (last year we accepted the insane, unreasonable number of ~300 freshmen in Physics) my personality, style and habits are greatly exposed to my students. “He said this”, ” he did that”, “He was unshaved”, “he came in class with sneakers” and many more comments WAY FAR from the level of academic integrity and teaching efficiency that I have often become the main subject of conversations, especially when stereotypes (such as those nicely depicted in PhDcomics) are violated.

On top of that, social media is everywhere. All students have immediate access to Facebook, twitter, instagram and so many more sites that are hungry for content. And “easy” is their specialty. It does not take long for anything “odd” or “annoying” (eg failing grade in a lab) to appear, usually with a cheesy comment, in some medium that will attract Likes by several people. The nastier the comment, the more attractive it becomes. Especially in student communities gossiping is boosted exponentially by spicy commentary and thriving very fast.

So, how can an academic protect him/herself from such events? Can you just ignore such behaviors and continue to live your life? How much should you be exposed in social media, especially if you use them as educational means? Is there any red line where nasty comments become violations of personal life at a level where one should officially ask for countermeasures?

I have no definite answers to all the above. Despite the fact I am very exposed to students promoting openness in both educational and personal level, in an attempt to grow trust between the two interacting sides and strengthen the link that will benefit the educational process, I avoid following comments about my style or personality on social media. Occasionally, I become aware of bitter “personal stories” (usually after exam grades are posted) and nasty comments. I think of them as immature reaction that will fade out shortly after the first rush of adrenaline. So I pay no attention. But some other comments, strictly coming up as gossip about my appearance, my balding top, my old laptop or whatever in those lines, find me asking myself if there is some reason behind them that I should care about in the near future. Believe me, I resist. But still, I think about it.

After some time and quite some thinking, I have crystalized a few principles that I stick to when dealing with such events:

  • People are good and bad. Listen carefully to both and stick only to what good people have to say about you
  • Do not downlevel yourself to the level of students. You are supposed to be the mature one.
  • When posting to social media, incorporate academic integrity and scientific value. They will last till the universe falls.
  • Never, NEVER, backfire whatever the style of the comment is.

And as always in life: be yourself. Originality never loses value. Good luck to you, too!

OpenMotif on OSX El Capitan

It has been really annoying for over a month now: I have some old analysis codes that are Motif-based and after the OS X El Capitan upgrade last month I could not get them to compile properly.

The problem started when I tried to upgrade macports (I count on their database for old codes/libraries support instead of fink or homebrew). Then all went ok till the point I asked for openmotif libraries. They are based on gcc48 and present a persistive dependency during installation. After some digging I found that problem originated in one of the openmotif dependencies -the package ifeffit- that asks for gcc48. This version of gcc is older, but there is likely a bug in macports/Xcode7 that keeps it alive due to such dependency constraints, as in ifeffit. The flag +gfortran49 after the sudo port upgrade ifeffit, saved the day and had openmotif fully upgraded at last.

However, when I ran my analysis code, a new problem appeared: the new SIP policy by Apple that prevents anyone (even the superuser) to access some “critical” directories of the system, including /usr

The latest update had killed all symbolic links for home-compiled dylib files that had been placed under /usr. There were my openmotif libs as well! A solution was nowhere to be seen whatever I tried. After some extensive reading online I found some advice in a Brazilian site having similar problems but for the popular plotting/fitting package Grace (xmgrace). Here is the link (update: new working link).

I decided to follow the steps suggested, circumventing the SIP. I booted in recovery mode, disabled SIP, rebooted, created my symbolic links as needed, rebooted again in recovery, re-enabled SIP and after a last reboot, here I am reporting on a successful operation with the patient being completely healthy. My analysis code (under X11) works fine, all looks ok.

This SIP thing is really a problem. It is the first time I cursed Apple on their operating system configurations. After 12+ years of continuously working on OS X! Let’s see if another problem will pop up in the near future. Till then, I have plenty of spectra to analyze.

Psycho generation

As December has already rung the bell for 2015 coming soon to an end, thoughts and memories of the recent past pop up in my mind. It has been definitely a crazy year. Elections, referendum, elections again, capital controls, political uncertainty and civil unrest have been major parts of the crisis in our poor land. But also rich personal moments that exactly one year ago redefined a whole new path for me making me face the future with a lot more optimism. Do not expect me to share those moments. This is not why I am writing this tonight.

The main reason is that this morning I received an email from an old collaborator that a year ago our paths followed different directions due to conflicts in the way we see things in research. I do not -and do not have the right to- claim I know more than anybody else in the field. Certainly not. But having almost 25 years of pure research on my back has resulted in the formation of a rather solid point of view on several things that I deal with every day efficiently. For such reasons, opinions bumping aggressively onto mine are usually left behind by me. It has not happened often in my career, perhaps one or two times. There has been one guy, however, that is really something! A true egomaniac! To a degree beyond repair. As I said, that guy emailed me earlier today after almost a full year with no correspondence (a very very very calm period for me) and reminded me why I parted ways with him. I realized again my complete incapability to work with paranoids. His argumentation on all kind of things leaves me with essentially no logic arguments against his sayings. An entire lack of self awareness, an emperor’s syndrome is what governs his mind. Unbelievable to a level of awe.

I share my personal story with you to mark one crucial detail I have not mentioned above. This guy has been a PhD student till recently by a close collaborator of mine, graduated and finally found a post-doc position at some lab abroad. He may be happy; I don’t know. He is definitely superficial, a pure mental case in need of psychiatric treatment. I am sure that he will be recognized as such very soon. But it will be too late because the guy who trained him during his PhD failed to explain to him modesty, humbleness and (self)respect. This is a crucial detail. It is not all his fault. If it is true that PhD genealogies share common genes between scientists across generations, he has beyond any doubt inherited the worst of the bunch.

OSX Yosemite

Η 10η κατά σειρά έκδοση του δημοφιλούς λειτουργικού συστήματος OSX της Apple με τον κωδικό “Yosemite”, όπως δηλαδή το Εθνικό Πάρκο Γιοσέμιτι στις ΗΠΑ, προσφέρεται εδώ και 24 ώρες περίπου ως δωρεάν αναβάθμιση. Η συγκεκριμένη έκδοση διαθέτει πολλά καινοτόμα χαρακτηριστικά (υπάρχουν ήδη πάρα πολλοί σχολιασμοί στο δίκτυο από ειδικευμένους τεχνολογικούς ιστοχώρους) διατηρώντας σε ένα μεγάλο βαθμό την οικειότητα με το χρήστη, ένα βασικό χαρακτηριστικό της φιλοσοφίας της Apple από την πρώτη στιγμή που κυκλοφόρησε το υβριδικό OSX (πάντρεμα ενός άρτιου αισθητικά frontend με τη σταθερότητα του  FreeBSD στον κορμό του).

Ως power user του συστήματος OSX πάνω από 10 χρόνια (το πρώτο που είχα εγκαταστήσει ήταν το 10.2) παρατηρώ τις λίγες ώρες που έχω δαπανήσει με το Yosemite τα παρακάτω χαρακτηριστικά. Μην περιμένετε βαθιά ανάλυση. Είπα ότι είμαι power user και μάλιστα χωρίς iPhone, του οποίου την εκμετάλλευση φαίνεται ότι προσεγγίζει δραστικά η τελευταία έκδοση του λειτουργικού.

  • Υπάρχει καταρχάς ελαφρύτερο interface με πολύ ελαφρά στοιχεία.
  • Αισθητικά, η απώλεια της σκίασης στα εικονίδια δε μου άρεσε. 
  • Η μπαταρία μου (που πνέει τα λοίσθια εδώ και καιρό) έχει καλύτερη φόρτιση και απόδοση
  • Τα περισσότερα από τα προγράμματα που είναι ήδη εγκατεστημένα δεν παρουσίασαν προβλήματα, κάποια μάλιστα ήρθαν με ταυτόχρονη αναβάθμιση. Θα επανέλθω στο θέμα μόλις έχω δοκιμάσει εκτενώς το Keynote κοκ.
  • To Mail έχει κάποια ωραία χαρακτηριστικά, αλλά μια σημαντική απώλεια είναι η ασυμβατότητα του GPGMail plugin για encryption και signature, το οποίο δεν είναι πλέον δωρεάν. Περιμένουμε νεώτερα για να δούμε σε τι τιμή θα κυμανθεί η ενημέρωση.
  • Το Safari έχει αλλάξει μορφή, ίσως να το πει κάποιος βελτίωση, αλλά μου λείπει προσωπικά το να βλέπω το full URL στη μπάρα, αντί για το βασικό μόνο URL που επισκέπτομαι
  • Τα Shell command tools αναβαθμίστηκαν μαζί με την ενημέρωση και μέχρι στιγμής δεν είδα κάποιο πρόβλημα.

All in all, το συγκεκριμένο λειτουργικό, το οποίο να ομολογήσω ότι έχει ως target group κοινό με νεώτερα μηχανήματα από το δικό μου, ένα 4ετίας MacBook Pro 15.4″ χωρίς ρέτινα, δεν είναι άσχημο. Πρέπει μόνο να συνηθίσω τη σχεδόν επίπεδη παρουσίαση της πληροφορίας στην οθόνη μου. Η σταθερότητα και η λειτουργικότητα είναι ήδη εξασφαλισμένα χαρακτηριστικά.