Sunday, March 11, 2007
Why I am a physicist: Stefan Scherer
After following the guest posts of our inspiration series for some weeks, Sabine pointed out that despite being a contributor of this blog, I haven't told my story. So, let me try to explain, how did I come to be a physicist, and what does it mean to me?
Sometimes I ask myself, am I a physicist? I have studied it, I have even a PhD in physics, but I am not currently following a research or academic carrier. Now, this is a situation shared by many physicists - probably more than in other sciences. Many of them find jobs in software, or, especially in places like Frankfurt, in finance. I have been very lucky, finding a job where I am keeping touch to what is going on in the science, at the crossroads of two passions of mine: physics and books. I currently work in the editorial office of a multi-volume reference work covering all areas of physics. So, I am keeping contact to physics more than most other physicists outside academia. Point I want to make, being a physicist is not so much a description of what you do, but of the educational path you have taken, and, first of all, of a certain curious, and at the same time analytic, way to look at the world around us.
On the other hand, when I look back and try to see why and how I became what I am now, there are many contingencies that have brought me where I am, and many junctions that may have lead to other directions.
When I was a kid, there may have been signs that I may become s scientist, but not specifically a physicist. I was very curious about nature - my mother was amazed that I could name all the birds in the big garden around our house, and even accurately draw pictures of some of them. Later, I remember, I was fascinated by the TV series of Jacob Bronowski and Carl Sagan, and vividly read the accompanying books my parents had offered me. As a teen, I discovered the volumes of the TIME-Life Science Library series my father had subscribed to years earlier, and I read again and again about Matter, the Planets, or Mathematics, understanding a little more every time. And I was quite frustrated by the Scientific American, which I found extremely interesting, but which was way above my head. All this may have qualified me for very different paths, and indeed, in high school, when thinking about what to study later on, I sincerely considered many options: For some time, wanted to go into computer science, following the steps of my uncle, and learning more about artificial intelligence which was very much en vogue then. But I also was thinking about studying archaeology, and even to become an interpreter - after all, I could learn foreign languages with ease, and the institutions of the European Union in Strasbourg, Luxembourg, and Brussels were not far away from the place where I grew up.
In fact, I do not remember how and why I took the decision to inscribe in physics. In the year before Sabine left Germany, she made a video for the Christmas party of the physics institute in Frankfurt, where she interviewed people about all kinds of things - it was a lot of fun! When she pointed the microphone at me, I replied without hesitation to her question that I had studied physics because of Supernova 1987A. Though this sounds like a good answer, it is most probably one of those reconstructions which our memory creates at hindsight to provide us with a straightforward story. On the other hand, there is for sure some truth to it, since I had developed a big interest in astronomy at that time, and the Supernova was a prime event in that year. There was no astronomy department in my "hometown" Saarbrücken university, so choosing physics probably was a logical step.
Saarbrücken is a small university, with the physics department focussing on condensed matter physics. I was quite impressed by the course on theoretical physics offered by Arno Holz, and after following closely his seminar on topological defects in condensed matter physics, it was clear for me that I would join his group for my diploma. Unfortunately, Arno Holz didn't live to see me finish my thesis. In a sense, his untimely death pushed my path through life in a new direction: The lecturer who took care of us students had close connections to a scientific publisher. He had translated several books, and was then looking for support with the translation of a text on the electronic structure of materials. With my faible for books, I thought this was a very interesting job, and did it. Indeed, I liked it so much that after my diploma, I decided to look for a position in publishing. I had luck and found a post with a publishing house in Frankfurt, where I immersed in the then new technologies of electronic media and prepared the German edition of a HTML based physics course.
Working with the quite small Frankfurt publisher, it was inevitable to learn to know Horst Stöcker, who was not only one of the "star authors", but had his office at the institute for theoretical physics just across the street, and looked in quite often. When he learned that for my diploma I had worked on phase transitions, he asked me if I would not be interested in investigating the phase transition to the quark-gluon plasma, and getting a PhD in his group. I then knew next to nothing about quarks and QCD, but this was an intriguing option to learn some cool new stuff, and to do some real research. So, over the next long years, I shared my time between the publisher's desk and the physics institute. And this not only earned me a doctorate, it literally widened my horizon: The institute in Frankfurt is quite big, and has collaborations and connections worldwide. There was a constant stream of postdocs and guests from all over the world, and I am really happy that I have had this experience to get to know all these people. And, of course, that I met Sabine, who's now my wife.
This may not have been a very typical career path, but somehow, I think, it fits with me. Still like the teen who was not sure what to study, I have many interests, and get manifold inspirations form friends and people I am interacting with. However, what intrigues me now especially in physics, that's the unity, the same principles and fundamental patterns which show up again and again in such a wide area of subjects, from condensed matter over molecules and atoms to the nucleus and elementary particles. This is just fascinating, and seeing and understanding such connections doesn't lose its thrill the more I know and learn. Being out of university now, I am happy that I have friends who keep me up to date - and that so much information is now available through the internet. There it still is, the endless frontier, and I am just curious and eager to know what it will show.
See also the previous contributions to the inspiration-series by
'Sabine Hossenfelder: My Inspiration'.
TAGS: PHYSICS, PHYSICISTS