Monday, August 17, 2009

Office Stuff

The other day I cleaned out my desk at PI. It is remarkable how fast clutter accumulates in offices, especially in places with a large turnover rate.

The desk drawers typically feature a selection of paper clips in all colors, sizes and shapes together with various other supply like colorful textmarkers, tippex, post-its, and undefined sticky substances. The first desk I got in a department of physics was passed on to be my by the previous only-women-at-the-institute. She nicely left some tampons. When I arrived at PI my desk drawer unit was full with my new office mate's files. It took me several months to convince him I really do need some space myself. (Nice girls don't only not get the corner office, they don't even get a desk drawer.) Looking into the bookshelf next to my desk, it was filled with notes and papers and folders and business cards from pre- and pre-decessors.

I changed office during my second year at PI due to an incurable disagreement with my officemate about what constitutes a life-friendly room temperature. This degraded me down to the 2nd floor where the view isn't so pretty, but also upgraded me to a window desk. While there was still plenty of space for my few things in the shelf, that office too already featured some folders and files of unknown origin, some filled, some empty. I also found a copy of Weinberg's first QFT volume that I happily used. It doesn't have any library stickers on it, and I have no clue whose it is. I'll leave it for whoever gets the desk next.

It is also always interesting what's under the keyboard or to check if there are sticky notes in the drawers. They will typically feature phone numbers, email addresses, or cryptic combinations of numbers and digits that probably are some of the dreaded random-generated keywords the insufficient human memory is sometimes forced to deal with.

And PI isn't even yet 10 years old! In the advanced stages, it will look like the ITP in Frankfurt did. Upon being shown your new desk, you realized all bookshelves were full already with books, papers, files and notes that had accumulated over decades and that nobody ever dared to throw out. After all, they belong to somebody, right? Offprints and proceedings seem to be particularly vulnerable to abandonment. The walls will be covered with helpful notes, like "if the phone doesn't work push the plug," or "if AC runs havoc call XYZ & chatter with your teeth."

And let's not even talk about hygiene. Shortly after I changed offices I accidentally spilled coffee on the floor. A full year later, the spills where still there. Acting out on a severe case of PMS I asked what the cleaning staff is actually payed for. Next day, the coffee spills where gone, but the floor is still covered with dead insects and spider webs in the corners. The occasional pencil stroke on the desk is also preserved for future generations. A study by the University of Arizona found the typical desk has hundreds of times more bacteria per square inch than an office toilet seat.

It's also amazing what people store in their offices. One prof I knew used to dry his bathing trunks in his office. Many have various sports equipment and clothes, towels, and shoes. I've also come across shaving supply, suitcases, plumber's helpers, silver- and dishware, condomes, ropes, empty pizza-boxes and leftover food in advanced stages of decay, plush toys, action figures, pillows, pet food, jumper cables, and toys, tools and technical equipment of all sorts. Somebody should make a movie about physicists being trapped in their institute, needing to come up with some ingenious construction to save their lives from what's to be found in their offices only.

I'm looking forward to my next desk :-)


  1. Enjoy the new venue Bee and spread some illumination therefrom. That temperature thing: sometimes it's where the person is from. I had a hard time with a lady of Minnesota who thought that 68° F (20° C) or less was good for office temperature.

    My coinage?: pre-deskessor: the person who occupied the desk before you.

    I'm on Facebook now, I'll join your page if I see it.

    BTW these are 40th anniversary of Woodstock days, I was young but remember it well - "makes me feel old."

  2. Scientific office is low profit stuff - private companies know the price of time vasted in office chaos and they penalize employee for it strictly.

    Alan Guth MIT office before "cleaning"...

  3. Hi Bee,

    Gathered from only the few times I’ve actually been in PI, I came away with the opposite impression, being if anything the place was perhaps a tad sterile and could use a little more chaos and a few more bacteria. We forget that there are good germs and bad germs, placing us in equal danger if we lose the good as being exposed to the bad.

    Aside from this it's sad to imagine us Canucks will be losing you soon and yet happy that Sabine Hossenfelder will continue her work in research and journey through life. I do hope that at least some of the time you spent in this country stays as being fond memories and those visions of crowded work space and coffee stains will soon vanish from recollection.



    P.S. I heard a related story once, that I’ve not been able to confirm as being true. That being that after a few months of PI’s actual start up, they held an official public opening, for which the cleaning staff were told to have the place presenting as spotless. However, in their zeal they cleaned every blackboard in every office that had one, including the one forming one whole wall of your dining room , the Black Hole bistro. I found this to be a humorous story even if it not true. Also, perhaps the repercussions of that episode might explain those coffee stains and cobwebs :-)

  4. I am curious about which direction the temperature disagreement was in. I am a Canadian working in Germany at the moment, and I find that the locals prefer interior temperatures that, for me, are far too hot to permit any sort of rational thought, much less comfort. They also have a, for me puzzling, opposition to any kind of fresh air indoors.

  5. I did my masters at Stockholm University, at the campus where Nordita is. I can assure you that the cleaning is very efficient :-)

  6. In the advanced stages, it will look like the ITP in Frankfurt did.
    Hello Bee
    guess, how many stages are there?

  7. In our student council office in Munich, at some point in time someone started keeping a toothbrush there. This turned out to be a good idea (if you once ate something with garlic for lunch and stayed at university for 10 more hours afterwards, you may know what I'm talking about), so right now, nearly all of us have a toothbrush there. That makes about 20 toothbrushes, and if you knock on the door at the wrong time, you may step inside a small room where 15 people are not able to talk to you because they are busy brushing their teeth.

  8. One professor from my alma mater had an office that rivalled Alan Guth's (comment 1) - except he had about twice as much stuff and less than half the floor space. About 95% of it was fanfold 132-character tractor paper covered in double-precision FORTRAN output. If he was sitting at his desk you couldn't see him from the door. In fact, the door would only open wide enough to just squeeze through.

    Sadly, that building was recently demolished - I have no idea what happened to the printouts.

  9. Hi Phil,

    It starts in the drawers. It always starts in the drawers... Best,


  10. Andrew, Neil',

    My officemate was also German, but with some more insulation. If I have to choose between fresh air and warm air I'll choose the warm air. Not because I don't like fresh air, but cold seems to trigger some survival instinct and the only thing my brain produces then is a flashing red light saying "TOO COLD, GET OUT OF HERE." As a consequence, it's impossible to work for me if it's too cold.

    Last winter Stefan had an issue with the heating in his apartment. The thermometer showed consistently 17 or 18 C. Needless to say, I complained non-stop. I'm kinda sorry about it, but it's really the only thing my brain will produce in such a situation. His landlord asked me what I think is a good room temperature. When I said 25 C, he laughed at me and said that's too warm. I frankly think it's nobody else's business to tell me what temperature I feel comfortable in.

    In any case, it is certainly true it depends to some extend on where people grew up. I actually first meant to move into the office next door but somebody told me the guy who sits there is from Novosibirsk, and I thought that's maybe not such a good match. As to the Canadians, they run around in T-shirt and Flip-Flops as soon as the outside temperature has risen above freezing point.

    What I learned in Canada though is the value of ski-underwear. Best,


  11. Zephir, Andrewg: Yep, I too have seen offices of that sort. To some extend the accumulation of STUFF around human beings is a very interesting phenomenon. I'm one of these people who constantly throw away things, who has no issues re-gifting or selling gifts, and doesn't develop attachment to things (except for very few items of personal value). Still, even with that, stuff seems to multiply. I try to avoid thinking about that I do have a complete second household stored in Germany since I didn't think I'd be away for longer than a year. At some point I'll have to face that stuff.

  12. Alex: In fact, I too do have a toothbrush in my desk. Reason is that I several times went to the dentist from work.

  13. Hi George,

    Humm. Let me see.

    First there is the "this office is too sterile" stage when it's completely empty that leads people to add some "life" to the room. The result is a rather confused random interior design with things here and there.

    Next stage is if the first some people leave. They will have some stuff they don't urgently need and can maybe come back some time to pick them up, or maybe the next person has a use for etc. They will hide it in the drawers if there are any, so the office looks neat and clean. It's the "clog the drawers first" stage.

    Next person who comes will figure the drawers are all full with useless stuff somebody else left, thus they have to store their things in the shelves. Once there's things in the shelves, it rapidly multiplies. It's the "Oh, there's some space, let's put it here"-stage.

    The final stage is when the shelves are full and newcomers proceed to taking things out of the drawers and shelves to place them elsewhere (eg on the shelves, windowsills, in the corners, sinks, etc). Let me call it the "Let's make some space" stage.

    After that, I recommend some major water damage or fire with a following renovation. Alternatively, trashing down the building and relocating into a newer one also relieves the issue. I wonder why nobody ever has the idea to once every couple of years go through offices and store "stuff-people-don't use" in the basement or something.



  14. After that, I recommend some major water damage...
    This is a technology of ancient
    origin, neverthless it is reliable.
    A certain Herakles applied it to
    clean some cote.

  15. You were sharing your office with somebody else? This is odd, having in mind the nature of your work which is cerebral by definition. How you were able to concentrate? Whenever you wrote something on the blackboard for example the other guy was watching you and vice versa? I think the whole situation would be annoying and quite weird.

  16. Hi Bee,

    what kind feeling does the office change produce ? Are these mixed emotions ?



  17. Giotis: It is pretty much standard that postdocs have to share offices. I guess I can be lucky at PI it's only 2 per office. The office I started in, we were 5 people in an office the same size that is here for 2 people. On the risk of destroying your illusions, I prefer notepads over blackboards.

  18. Kay: Hard to say since I haven't yet seen the new office... I'll keep you updated. I'm not the biggest fan of PI's interior design, so I don't think I'll miss that aspect.

  19. Thanks for accepting me as a Facebook friend, Bee!

  20. "It is pretty much standard that postdocs have to share offices"

    I see the same hierarchy pattern again and again. It's not due to lack of resources of course. It's a way to be reminded of your position in the ladder. This discrimination mechanism based on your "status" (scientific, social, economical or other) has been refined throughout human history and embedded in the cultural evolution process by the upper classes in a way that now seems natural and fair. Nevertheless it's immoral and reveals the lack of respect to the humanistic ideal.

    Take Obama's health reform for example. Obama just want to assure a descent health care for every American; something that anyway is a fundamental right of every human being regardless of his economical status. Nevertheless he faces intense opposition from the right winged middle class. The minds of these people are so polluted from these artificial hierarchy patterns that they think is fair to let you die like a dog if you don't have enough money or insurance. That doesn't stop them of course from calling themselves devout Christians and patriots. These "hard working Americans" find the cruelty towards their fellow man to be something natural and fair. If you don't accept it they simply label you as a communist as they call Obama now.

    But I'm off topic I think. Sorry:-)

  21. Hi Giotis,

    I basically agree with you. In some cases space is scarce indeed, but either way it's clear who will be the ones that have to be squeezed together. Students are on the bottom on the ladder, postdocs above them, then there's junior faculty, senior faculty, and everybody in leading positons on the top. The latter commonly have two offices, one for the secretary. Flat hierarchy, my ass. On the other hand, sharing an office doesn't bother me as long as the person isn't noisy or smelly (or loves arctic temperatures).

    Reg health insurance, a friend just send me this, it's really scary. Best,


  22. Scary indeed. I didn't know that things are that bad. They are afraid to call an ambulance after a car accident ?!

    Strange though, I've never seen that happen in Hollywood movies. They all go to the hospital with the ambulance, they all have the best possible treatment and nobody asks them for money afterwards:-)

  23. Hi Bee,

    You might like the indoor temps in St. Petersburg, Russia. They keep it blazing hot inside stores, even in August. I asked my Russian friends about it, and they said maybe it's because Russians worry a lot about freezing.

    Best, Kris

  24. A story I've always loved:

    My grandfather was an engineer at Teledyne in the 60's. He was also the undisputed head of household - my grandmother, while an amazing woman who held no qualms about getting her way, was a stay-at-home mom and let my grandfather pay all the bills and such. They were fairly well off and had a large house (could be called a mansion) in Texas that had enough rooms to include what she referred to as his "library", which was a combination study/lab/workshop/library where my grandfather spent his free time tinkering.

    When he died in the early 70s, there was a bit of a problem: everything was in his name and, because of the size of the fortune, was going to spend a few months going through the normal legal processes. My grandmother panicked, begging the lawyers to tell her how she was supposed to live (they paid the bills, but incidentals weren't covered); they were less than helpful.

    So, as she was wont to do when she was stressed, she started "tidying up", and decided to clean up his library. Stacks of books, piles of papers, odd pieces of electronics and such were all over the place. She grabbed a stack of books to go place on the shelf and accidently dropped one - which fell open and proceeded to spill out an envelope.

    The envelope contained a schematic, some notes, and a few hundred dollars in cash. Apparently, when my grandfather got an idea for a project, he'd take all the plans and enough money to start it, stick it in an envelope, and place them in a book.

    There were hundreds of books; not all of them contained envelopes. However, if I recall correctly, the final amount in cash she gathered over a few hours was somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000. It was more than enough for her to live on until the legal paperwork was done.

    So, before you throw away anything in those offices, you might want to look around; you never know what you'll find.

  25. 1 of the senior members of my group in grad school had scores of Playboy magazine, hidden under the floors of the computer room (which had raised floors). A succeeding member of the group disapproved (a conservative prude), & later tossed them into the garbage.

    I found it amusing that on Cosmicvariance, a female researcher admitted to masturbation (while at work) as a porthole to getting any work done, in order to relieve the pressure. Condoms, masturbation, Playboy magazine.

  26. Staying in St.Petersburg some years ago the temperature in our hotel room was about 30°C. The outside temperatute was -25°C.When we asked how to regulate, a craftsman came, opened the window and said: So we regulate!!
    Best Mum

  27. That's a Great story Austin!



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