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
and Sabine's related guest post at Asymptotia 'Sabine Hossenfelder: My Inspiration'.


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  1. Stefan,

    What exactly was covered in Arno Holz's theoretical physics course?

  2. Thanks Stefan! It's really nice to see unconventional paths through science. Nice for me (my own path is pretty strange), but also I think useful for helping others to recognize that there is more than one way to follow one's curiosity about the world. And your childlike curiosity comes through here too! I think it is our duty as an adult to not forget our childlike curiosity and to never forget one's dreams. You found a nice way to combine yours. Now the next challenge is how to have you and Sabine be in the same country or at least in the same time zone.

  3. i didn't think of that video for the xmas party for some while, whatever happened to it? we should upload it on YouTube ;-)

    the best scene was when I asked the newly hired young professor if he ever regretted becoming a physicist. i caught him on cigarette break. he took a drag, blew out, carefully away from the camera, and said with a dead pan voice: many times.

    btw, Stefan what is going on with the server in Frankfurt? nothing works! my emails to you are bouncing back.



  4. AHA! Right this second all the pictures reappeared - I guess this means the server is up and running again? Sorry folks - I have stored all my pictures in Frankfurt, and each time they have network problems they will all disappear - most notably the one in the header. Best,


  5. I also appreciate unconventional paths!

    This is the first time I've been to your site, won't be the last.

  6. Hi anonymous,

    What exactly was covered in Arno Holz's theoretical physics course?

    It was a fairly standard course: In the second year (third/forth semester - these were the first courses in theoretical physics in the German curriculum at that time) Classical Mechanics according to Goldstein, and Classical Electrodynamics according to Jackson. In the third year, Quantum Mechanics according to Messiah, and Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics according to Huang. In the forth year, again Quantum Mechanics according to Messiah. In fact, he followed quite closely these texts - he always said that he could hardly produce better lectures about this standard lore by himself, and that it would be a good idea to follow these established texts.

    As such, that might have been quite dull lectures, but the really cool thing was that he started most of his lectures by a free 10 minute blackboard talk, where he repeated the most important ideas from the last time, and tried to explain what he wanted to go through in the lecture ahead.

    Moreover, he inserted sometimes a lecture or two where he tried to explain to us more advanced topics. For example, at the end of the electrodynamics course, he showed us how to "invent" electrodynamics from the principle of local gauge invariance, and quite early in the quantum mechanics course, he explained the idea of the path integral. These were lectures where you became really intrigued by theoretical physics...

    In his research, he did quite cool stuff compared to the other condensed-matter groups there. He was interested in melting and worked on the theories of defect-driven melting with the dissociation of disclinations and dislocations. There is quite an impressive theoretical toolbox to look at these problems. For example, about Hehl and torsion, I had heard in his seminars, because torsion is something natural if one uses differential geometry to describe displacement fields and defects in solids. And, of course, topology pops up again and again in this field. When I joined his group, he just had started to try to apply Conformal Field Theory to describe melting.

    Best, stefan

  7. Just wonderful, Stefan. Thank you for showing a good path to many to look at the world around us. Curiosity is a ladder that pushes us up.

  8. Dear Stefan

    Very nice post. I did enjoy it a lot. Just for fun I did a comparison of the textbooks you used with the ones I used in the 70's.
    Classical Electrodynamics - Landau
    Classical Mechanics - Goldstein
    Quantum Mechanics - Cohen-Tannoudji
    Thermodynamics - Bazarov

    I can't remember what I did with those books. Probably sold and converted into beers :-)


  9. What an interesting story! Thanks for sharing it with us. A lot of people in other fields end up taking meandering paths, even in the business world. I think it can give you a special perspective on things. Publishing sounds like a pretty interesting business too. And here's to endless frontiers! Thanks again for your story.

  10. One of the nice subthemes in the essay is "Became physicist, met wife!"


  11. Stefan, rafa,

    These days it seems like what's covered in the undergraduate physics curriculum at continental European universities, is roughly equivalent to an American masters degree in physics.

    Books like Goldstein, Jackson, etc ... seemed to be considered graduate level physics textbooks in America. Though I've occasionally heard of some instructors using them for senior year undergraduate physics courses. (That seems to be more the exception than the rule these days).

    Do they cover anything like quantum field theory at the undergraduate level in Germany?

  12. Hi anonymous

    In Spain and in the 70's it was very much like you say. Physics at the university took 3+2 years.

    The first 3 years were common for everybody. Then you had to choose between several paths for the remaining 2 years. It is true to say most brilliant guys went to he-physics, not my case :-).

    So, for instance, I ignore everything about the next book of the Landau series: Relativistic Electrodynamics. While my friends at He-ph were carrying during the 4th year a huge book called 'gravitation' I had to deal with boring solid state issues and textbooks. After the 5 years and if you want to become a doctor you need some institution funding your research and a Prof. supporting and monitoring your proposal. I don't know now but I do not think is much different. Stefan did very well.


  13. Sorry, for Landau I meant Quantum EDynamics


  14. rafa,

    Some universities in America have courses like general relativity, particle physics, solid state, etc ... at the senior undergrad level. This seems to be highly dependent on the university, and what fields the particular physics department specializes in.

    I've heard of one or two American universities offering a senior undergrad course on quantum field theory, but so far it hasn't really caught on yet at many other universities. In principle, a really highly motivated undergrad student can just churn through all the undergrad courses very quickly such that they can take the graduate level quantum field theory courses in their senior undergrad year.

    When I was an undergrad, the only advanced undergraduate courses I took were nuclear physics and fluid dynamics. The nuclear physics course did cover some basic particle physics stuff, without doing any Feynman diagram type calculations.

  15. "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."

    Hi Stefan, nicely sums up some of the phase transitions of life in human form - the others are how we came to be (human), and what we shall become after!


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