Tag Archives: academia

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?)

Can hell break out of a .2% difference in Planck’s constant?

This is an untold story, part of my personal history in academia, when all things were still coming up roses on me. Somehow, the news regarding the update of four of the fundamental constants we use in Physics and science triggered a memory.

It is 2001, last few months of data analysis towards my PhD thesis. A shared data set between my folder and a senior German collaborator’s one is analyzed in parallel with two different methods. Final results show up eventually from both sides and we immediately see that there is a constant 0.2% difference in the extracted values, despite that they should be exaclty the same in principle. Intense discussion breaks out among all collaborators why this is happening. As a student I was the easy target: “you, Theo, have made a mistake”. New round of independent analysis breaks out by a post-doc. He comes back with the same results I produced and still a persistent 0.2% difference with the German guy’s values.

A month later, we are still stuck. The 0.2% does not go away whatever the effort. Then, I decide to dig better. I revisit the fundamental constants, Planck’s h and speed of light, c I found in the CODATA evaluated tables. Cross-checking with the German collaborator shows he had used values found in an appendix of a nuclear structure book published in the ’60s. The values merely differed by exactly 0.2%. A couple of hours after our discovery, I get chinese for lunch and a fortune cookie offers me a metaphysical touch with the quote: “The truth is in the numbers”.

I remembered this story earlier in the morning, when I read about the update of the fundamental constants. The new values can be found in this paper. Just use them cautiously; they might give you hell. Especially if you are a PhD student.

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.