Friday, May 12, 2006

Emmy Noether

I made my PhD at Frankfurt University in August 2003. From 2001 on Stefan, Marcus, and I lead a group we called LXD - Large eXtra Dimensions. Its official supervisor was Horst. From the very beginning on this group was quite successful and it seemed to be very attractive for young students. Soon we had several undergraduate and graduate members who were very interested in working with us. Temporarily, we even had encounters with mathematicians from the other side of the building in our group meetings!

During the first years, we managed to use money from other sources to support the group members, but soon it became clear that we would need an own grant to enable ongoing research. We applied for support at the German Research Foundation (DFG). The support was declined at the end of 2003. In January 2004, I moved to the US.

Here is a photo of (most of) the group (missing: Katja Poppenhaeger), taken around Christmas 2003. From left to right: Marcus Bleicher, Stefan Hofmann, Sabine Hossenfelder, Christoph Rahmede, Ulrich Harbach, Joerg Ruppert, Sascha Vogel, Horst Stoecker.

While I was sitting in Arizona and cursing the blisters from my Flip-flops, I had plenty of time to wonder about the complete absence of future my life suddenly suffered from. Then I found that the DFG has an excellent program, named the Emmy-Noether-program. Its purpose is:

To provide outstanding researchers with the opportunity to rapidly qualify for a leading position in science and research or for a university teaching career by leading an Independent Junior Research Group and assuming relevant teaching duties.

To recruit young, outstanding postdocs working abroad (back) to Germany.

In summer 2004 I applied for this program, as it was one of the little choices that seemed to make sense to me. Not only would it have meant a 5-6 year position, but I would have been able to hire collaborators, and to actually pursue my research interests! (As opposed to, say, cursing my blisters). This was such a great opportunity that it seemed worth the effort to write a proposal despite the small chances to finally get the grant (all of a sudden I heard from about thousands of people who did not get it).

Unfortunately, during the time my application was being processed, the guidelines for the program changed significantly. (The original version consisted of two separate phases). In February 2005, I received the decision from the DFG. They wrote they had to reject my application. I did not fulfill the requirements for the new guidelines. According to these, I needed at least two years of stay abroad, one of which was missing. Instead, the DFG was very generous and offered me to instead provide a scholarship for this missing year. After this year, I could apply again for the Emmy Noether program. Joerg and I found that very funny. Essentially they said: "You are great, please stay in the US."

I applied again for the program in summer 2005. The regulations had become significantly more difficult and bureaucratic. Among other things, the application had to be typeset in Arial, printed on A4 paper and two-hole-punched (you don't believe that? Read Section IV: Proposal Formats and Submission). Living in the US, the latter two requests I found almost impossible to fulfil. (Well, if you live in Germany, try to print 50 pages on letter format and get them 3-hole-punched).

Since I had no problem picturing me being unemployed and sleeping on the beach any time soon, I also applied for regular postdoc positions around November 2005. To make a long story short, I accepted the offer from the Perimeter Institute in January 2006. Then, in February, the DFG told me that I got the grant for the Emmy Noether. I asked them whether it was possible to postpone the starting date for one year. They said no. PI assured me every possible kind of support for a collaboration with Germany, so I offered the DFG that I would initiate and support the project from Canada (though I had to be talked into making this offer). Again, they said no, the grant is attached to my person, and no one else but me can make Phenomenological Quantum Gravity (such the title of the proposal) in Germany. They asked me to reconsider my decision.

Yesterday, I wrote them a lengthy explanation why I would stick to my decision, go to Canada, and decline the German offer.

This, I guess, is the end of the story I started in a previous post. I find it very sad that the possibility to start a group on Quantum Gravity in Germany fails due to a lack of flexibility in program guidelines.

Dear reader: should you qualify for the Emmy Noether Program and consider applying for a grant, please feel free to contact me. ESPECIALLY, if you are interested in Phenomenological Quantum Gravity, as it seems, the DFG is in principle willing to support such research.

I am traveling the next 3 weeks, so the frequency of my posts will crucially depend on the speed of my internet connection.


  1. Sounds like you had two good options to choose between -- stressful, but not so bad.

    It appears the Emmy Noether would have given you a great boost up in academic career, freedom, and prestige. I'm surprised you didn't ask PI if they could delay your postdoc with them until you could come back as a visiting scientist. But I can understand you wanting to go to PI immediately -- it looks like a great place.

    Me, I'd miss the beach... especially during a Canadian winter. But it's the people around you that can matter the most, and I don't think you could make a better choice than PI when it comes to that. (Even though I've never been there.)

  2. Hi Garrett, thanks for the nice words.

    stressful, but not so bad

    You are right, having two options is better than having none.

    academic career, freedom, and prestige

    'Freedom' is something can't really associate with German Universities.

    Me, I'd miss the beach... especially during a Canadian winter. But it's the people around you that can matter the most...


    But since choosing a place because of the beach wasn't such a good idea, choosing one because of the people seemed like a smart move - you are way ahead of me.



  3. 'Freedom' is something can't really associate with German Universities.

    Ha! Guess they would have been pissed had you quickly confirmed there was no realistic way to phenomenologically test quantum gravity and moved on to something else.


    But since choosing a place because of the beach wasn't such a good idea, choosing one because of the people seemed like a smart move - you are way ahead of me.

    Oh no, I'm way behind you -- I live in Maui. :)
    Working on catching up though...
    I kind of miss people with brains.


  4. I have found a little mistake at the picture of the LXD-group. The second person from the right, next to Horst Stöcker is not Sascha Schwabe. This guy is Sascha Vogel.

  5. Hi Anonymous,

    Right! Sorry for the mixup. Have corrected the typo. Best,


  6. I spy .... BEER to the left in the photo! Is that why everyone is smiling? ;-)


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