Friday, July 30, 2010

Note from Away

[Perimeter Institute has a monthly newsletter (not online). It regularly features pieces from PI alumni, called “Note from Away.” During my last visit at PI, I was asked to write one. Originally meant to appear in the June edition, it will now probably appear next month. Supposed to summarize the changes due to move and new job, I thought it would fit well on my blog as well.]

After three years at PI, last September I moved to Stockholm to start my new position as assistant professor at NORDITA. I don't know why, but upon mentioning my new destination at least five Canadians independently replied with a friendly, “Oh, Switzerland, eh? How exciting.” So just we're on the same page: Stockholm is the capital of Sweden. Switzerland is the little piece of land just below Germany that doesn't want to join the EU because they believe they've invented democracy. Switzerland is cheese and mountains. Sweden is ABBA and the Nobel prize. It's very North and very European. It's as close to the North Pole and as close to socialism as I ever want to get.

NORDITA is “The Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics” and a very pleasant place to work. It is in many respects similar to PI. Like PI, it is a pure research institute, so there are no teaching duties. We have close ties to the nearby university, in this case the KTH (Royal Technical Highschool Royal Institute of Technology); the physics department is basically next door. NORDITA is also a very interdisciplinary place, so a lot of effort is put into facilitating communication between the different disciplines. The disciplines themselves, however, differ from those represented at PI. Besides particle physics and cosmology, we have astrophysics, condensed matter and biophysics, which makes for a very interesting mix. What I miss from PI, though, are the quantum gravity and the quantum foundation groups.

That's then where the similarities end. NORDITA is a much smaller place than PI. As such, it is more personal, and less burdened with administration and policies. Further, NORDITA doesn't sit on a few hundred million dollars, so our possibilities are much more constrained. Most notably, we don't have a public outreach program, something I have always especially appreciated at PI.

Besides my general interests in cosmology and complex systems, the focus of my research continues to be the exploration of possibilities to find experimental evidence for quantum gravity and to distinguish different models.

I was just organizing a workshop on this topic, the ESQG 2010. Check out the website for more details. The phenomenology of quantum gravity is still a young research field but promises to become even livelier in the future. It is an exciting area to work in, and I especially like that it combines many different areas of both theoretical and experimental physics.

As for Stockholm itself, it's clean, it's green, it's well-organized, interesting, and at least in the summer stunningly beautiful. Crown Princess Victoria just got married, and following “Midsommarafton” (midsummer's eve) the whole country is now on vacation. I think of you guys every time I hear ABBA's “Waterloo” on the radio, i.e. about once every hour.

As most of you know, you can follow me on my blog Backreaction, which I write together with my husband, Stefan.
Ha det så bra,

Sabine

[A week after I wrote the above, the driver who brought me to the airport put my bags into the trunk and said: “You now live in Switzerland, eh?”]

30 comments:

Uncle Al said...

A thousand Swedes ran through the weeds:
The Battle of Copenhagen.
A thousand Swedes ran through the weeds,
Being chased by one Norwegian.

"8^>)

"Nice" only goes so far. "Capable" goes much further when a polity is open to the world. There are people who do not deserve charity for their enthusiasm to consume without payback. We are not passengers on Spaceship Earth, we are crew.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cheeses#Sweden
That being said, how is Swedish cheese?

Bee said...

Don't know about Swedish cheese, but the cheese selection in Sweden is pretty good. Most of it imported though. And hard to get it in smaller amounts than a pound or so. Not really suitable for a one-person-household. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,


That’s funny that so many people getting Switzerland confused with Sweden. Rather then disappoint them I think you would be better off to practice your yodeling and treat them to a little :-)


Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...

Hi Bee,

Nice piece, well done. I have nothing to add except that which you can add, which is that the ESQG workshop is in the can, and we'd all like to hear about the details, thanks.

Also, you forgot to mention that given the linearity of your work history, your next job will be at the far northern end of a central Russian Arctic peninsula. After that, Alaska. Keep going and we'll get you settle in the NYC area yet, Bee. It worked for Einstein, after all. He liked it here.

Bee said...

I was about to add that, but there was a length restriction. Regarding ESQG, the guy who was supposed to upload the videos and slides evidently went on vacation without having done it. I have no clue when he'll be back. So, I can either write a summary without videos, or I can wait for the videos and then write the summary.

Steven Colyer said...

Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. OK, fine, we'll just have to wait and no worries, I'm sure the wait will be worth it.

Given this American's poor understanding of European culture, doesn't your whole continent go a month-long vacation (For the English: holiday) every year, in August? If so, what did that guy think he was doing ... getting a head start?! Ok then, he must have 5 weeks vacation or something.

That's why America pulled ahead of Europe, Bee. We actually work 12 months a year, here. ;-)

Thomas Larsson said...

"KTH (Royal Technical Highschool)"

And MIT stands for Massachusetts Technical Highschool :-)

Auf englisch, high school meinst Gymnasium, während eine technische Hochschule heisst Institute of Technology. Jedenfalls ist die offizielle englische Übersetzung meiner alter Schule RIT (Royal Institute of Technology).

Luke said...

Is this for that Perimeter Institute newsletter I see on campus periodically?

I've grown a new appreciation for the amount of money PI has after discussing it with you.

How goes learning Swedish?

Steven Colyer said...

Auf englisch, high school meinst Gymnasium, während eine technische Hochschule heisst Institute of Technology. Jedenfalls ist die offizielle englische Übersetzung meiner alter Schule RIT (Royal Institute of Technology).

This is how Google Language tools translates that, Dr. Larsson:

In English, mean high school gymnasium, while a technical college called Institute of Technology. In any event, the official English translation of my old school, RIT (Royal Institute of Technology).

How goes learning Swedish?

Just move to America. We only speak one language here, although knowledge of Spanish is a plus.

You needn't speak Hindi or Chinese, because the increasingly growing numbers of Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans speak English better than we do. :-)

Georg said...

Rather then disappoint them I think you would be better off to practice your yodeling and treat them ...

Hello,
i`d recommend this lessons:

http://www.myvideo.de/watch/2711282/Evelyn_Hamann_Jodeldiplom

Diridödldu
Georg

Bee said...

Hi Luke,

It probably is that newsletter. Money can be a curse as well as a blessing. Not much progress with the Swedish. Neither with the Swiss ;-) How's things going in Wloo? I heard the Prime Minister came for a visit and so did the Queen. Not to mention Hawking. Busy place! Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Thomas,

Yes, you are right of course. I had explained that in a footnote here and was hoping it would be obvious. In any case, thanks for the correction. Best,

B.

PS: And I thought I submitted this comment yesterday, but evidently I forgot to hit "publish."

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Even though you are no longer at PI you continue to be a Researcher in Motion. I’m sorry to learn that NORDITA has no Quantum Gravity or Quantum foundationalists represented and yet even more disappointed there is no public outreach component.

To be honest though I’ve always found the best public outreach is where the institute's researchers speak about their work in smaller public gatherings more so than large public lectures presenting some imported celebrity researcher. I think events such as these have the researchers think about how to most simply and clearly describe what they are working on, which is good for both the researcher and the attendees.


That is it challenges the researchers to find and explain the relevance in their work, as well as the challenge it offeres to have it communicated. For the public it gives them the opportunity to learn first hand what is being explored in the ivory towers and through the researchers involvement more humanize such endeavours. It also gives the researchers the opportunity to discover what the range and scope of the public’s perception is regarding what they do. Anyway at least I can be thankful for your own public outreach effort as it manifests as exactly what I’m talking about.

Best,

Phil

Kay zum Felde said...

Hi Bee,

seems that you like Nordita, Stockholm and Sweden. So you're lucky, except that Stefan is some flight hours away.

Sorry to hear that Quantum Gravity and Quantum foundations are not research issues there. You might change that!

Think you're right about switzerland.

Best, Kay

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Georg,

I’m afraid too much is lost in the translation. However I think this exapmle better expresses the potential of what such practice can achieve ;-) Then again many have a Swiss watch and Swiss army knife yet what Switzerland offers that most people covet is one of their bank accounts :-)


Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...

Hi Kay,

I always like your intelligent stuff. But, um, ...

You wrote...
Sorry to hear that Quantum Gravity and Quantum foundations are not research issues there.

Um, except they DO promote it because they employ Bee. Am I missing something?

You know, I don't think Quantum Gravity, which is Bee's Profession and my Hobby, holds a heck of a lot of weight with mainstream Physics. I mean ... it's OUT there, and very important IMO, but like I said I'm biased.

There are MANY problems in Physics which demand more attention, but QG isn't chaff! It just gets crowded out, for political reasons or whatEVer reason. It's highly speculative, but ... so what?

Max Planck speculated about the cause of blackbody radiation, too. That seemed to work out well. ;-)

Georg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Georg said...

I’m afraid too much is lost in the translation.
Hello Phil,
Yes, of course. I aimed this link
to Bee, maybe she doesn`t know it.
It was produced in the late 60ties,
so Bee maybe doesn`know it.
"Jodeldiplom" has become a buzzword in Germany,
at least for my generation.
It is about that adult evening classes
courses on (crack-)pottery :=)
Regards
Georg

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Georg,


Oh Yodel Diploma’s, yes we have them here as well but rather their known as MBA’s and doctorates of economics. The recent results in respect to the world economy has demonstrated what a strong influence they’ve had :-)


Best,

Phil

Kay zum Felde said...

Hi Steven,

thank you for the flowers :-)

I thought, that working in groups at the same institution is quite better than working alone.

Best, Kay

Pmer said...

Bee, what do you think of arXiv:1007.1750 ?

Bee said...

Hi Pmer,

I haven't read it. Just from looking at the abstract I want to caution that the supernovae data isn't the only evidence for a non-vanishing CC that we have. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Kay,

I think the topic selection Nordita has is pretty good, though I personally miss some things. I am very skeptic about the path PI seems to have chosen to do a little bit of everything. It's like trying to make a cocktail by pouring together a little bit of everything. What you end up with undeniably contains alcohol but has no character, not to mention taste. It think they would have been better off sticking to a few fields and excelling there. Nordita is too small anyway to cover more fields than they already do and I think that's just fine, except that I miss the quantum gravity and foundation talks and feel somewhat cut off from what's going on. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

• Hi Bee,

”What you end up with undeniably contains alcohol but has no character, not to mention taste.

Sorry yet you’ve left me confused as I thought you supported collaboration and exchange between the specialties and as it appears is also something you miss. Could one not argue that rather than being left with something tasteless and lacking of character, what one can also end up with are some researchers who have a completely different taste and distinct character. I guess it comes down as to how one looks at it that being a product of arbitrary combination or one of purposeful cross fertilization. That is some would consider the former capable of producing only mutts while others some unique hybrids.

Best,

Phil

Luke said...

Bee,

Oh yes Waterloo has been busy. Hawking's visit actually made PI have security. I'm so used to just walking in and going to see whomever I want but now one has to sign in. Thankfully the people at the front desk know who I am so that helps.

Seeing Hawking was pretty cool though. Walking into the bistro and thinking "oh look, it's Stephen Hawking" is quite a surreal experience.

I think the best was when Hawking did that public lecture. The Alice room was turned into a media room and it was full of equipment. I think I saw a sound board twice as large as those tables in there.

Too bad about the Swedish though. Can you at least understand if your mail is important?

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

What I mean is that you don't create fruitful collaboration by just cramming together something of everything in one building. What is more likely to happen if you have too many people is that they cluster in groups of their own speciality. If you really want a fruitful collaboration between some few fields whose combination you think will lead to new insights you pick wisely not too many fields and not too many people and put them together. If you later decide maybe bringing in some other field of expertise, well, make a workshop or a program or whatever. PI's continuing extension makes me believe that the collaboration and cross-fertilization is no longer playing a central role and what's becoming more important here is to cover everything that could possibly be hot tomorrow, to be able to be comparable with other places. But there's many institutes where they do a little bit of everything and have a group for everything, and that is not enough. It is of course only my opinion, but I think that progress would be more likely to happen by selecting well-chosen focus areas that are underrepresented elsewhere (eg quantum foundations, quantum gravity, possibly others) and foster those. Yes, it's a gamble. Yes, it's a risk. And yes, other people will make fun of you. It is not that I think eg particle physics is uninteresting, certainly not. But thing is there's many excellent places in the world that do particle physics already. Basically I think what I'm saying is that you have to chose what you want. And if what you want is something of everything then you have to face you'll be losing something else, that's being a special place dedicated to carefully selected questions the close study of which hopefully reveals some of Natures mysteries. It's an old problem. If you reach for everything, you might end up having nothing. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Luke,

Sounds cool indeed :-) PI always has security, but usually they don't care much who goes in or out, unless late at night or so. My reading of Swedish is reasonably well meanwhile and the rest I can do with a dictionary. But I hardly understand a word, and I only know a few sentences. Clearly due to lack of practice because everybody I seem to talk to speaks English or German or both. I have the best intentions to learn it, at the very least it's impolite living in Sweden not speaking the language, but thing is I've never been very interested in languages and then I always have better things to do... So I kind of muddle through. Best,

B.

Zephir said...

I presume, Swedish people are so depressive not just because they're suffering with lack of light during long polar nights, but because they're forced to eat conserved food with high amount of organic amines, which are serving like depressant, too.

Bee said...

Zephir: For all I can tell Swedish people are not significantly more depressive than citizens of other nations. And I assure you they do sell fresh fruit and vegetables even in Sweden. Best,

B.

Rettaw said...

You forgot to mention the Stockholm University physics department! It's where Stefan Hoffman hid his lunch money as a phd, and where it remains to this day...

(At least it did a few years ago, I think someone might have reminded him he left it there while it was at NORDITA, but then München took him away)