Humans of Physics VII: Frederick del Pozo

This is the seventh installment of our project Humans of Physics, which seeks to portrait the scientists as the persons they are.

When the Lockdown came the big question every student was asking was “how will this impact my studies, degree, carreer???”. Luckily I am a Physics Student, soon to complete my MSc Thesis and degree, and therefore most of my work is easily done from Home, a luxury that many Physicists share. My work can be done with a stable WiFi connection, a laptop and Zoom-Calls. No longer did I need to “go to work”, I could simply sit at my desk or my bed, and work as I pleased.
But was I really that lucky? The consensus is that Physicists, and Theoreticians in particular, are content as long as they have a pencil and a sheet of paper to scribble on all day long. So why wouldn’t we look forward to months of strict social distancing, finally have some time to dive into our equations and theorems?

In fact a common issue that researchers in a variety of fields face is the inability to “turn-off”, “leave work at work” or however else you may want to phrase it. Of course when your job is your passion it may not seem like a stress-factor, but throw some self-doubt and performance-anxiety into the mix, and this passion can morph into a perpetual source of stress and quite literal headache. Already before the Corona-Virus lockdown the pressure to perform, be the best, fastest, brightest, etc. was very common amongst students and young researchers, and Physics is no different. Also from outside our field, the popular media portrays Physicists as geniuses or secluded geeks, the Big-Bang Theory being the best example for this. Despite all that, at least work and personal life was separated in most cases, which made it easier to shut-down. During the lockdown this boundary blurred almost completely, leaving many to wonder how they will be able to maintain a healthy work-life balance, also post-corona.

Most prejudices have a small bit of truth to it, and indeed the average Physicist is quite content when they are able to immerse themselves in their work. I used to sit at my desk for hours forgetting to eat, because the models we build, study and probe give us insight into other realms that are beyond the reach of our human senses and even understanding. But at the end of the day we are Humans of Physics, not logic driven calculators, and in times of unprecedented crisis like now it is important to focus on the “Human” aspect, more than ever.

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Frederick (center) is a theoretical Physics MSc student from Germany, currently completing his thesis on equilibrium properties of Quantum Field theories at the University of Heidelberg. 

Humans of Physics VI: Beatrice Ellerhoff

If you ask an author what their everyday life looks like, they will hardly ever answer: “Well, I’m just writing!” because combining letters into a meaningful text requires much more than the mere act of ‘writing’. Let me compare the work of a PhD student with that of the author: To say that my PhD is about performing computations on a black screen simply wouldn’t say enough. Both writing a book and calculating climate variables involves long research, practice of methodology, discussion with colleagues, many imperfect trials, and tedious bureaucracy. It requires the will to gain a holistic understanding of a specific topic,and the vision of contributing to society.

In a typical day, I might have – now virtual – meetings with colleagues, read research papers, do plain calculations on a sheet of paper, supervise students, and -most importantly- correct errors in the code. In all love for these mundane things, let’s be honest: Nothing compares to discussing a fresh result with colleagues and a warm pot of coffee when all errors are fixed. It really warms a PhD student‘s heart! While making small steps everyday, it is important not to lose sight of the big picture. In my case, that is to characterize long-term variations in climate signals which are relevant to the improvement of climate predictions and to the attribution of recent global heating to human activities.

As many PhD students, I am very much aware that my contribution can only be a small part in climate research which however gives the validating feeling of working in a large, international, and colorful community. In the end, whether we are authors or physicists, we are driven by curiosity and the joy of difficult challenges. The author will one day hold their book in their hands. I’m not there yet*. Until then, I will enjoy the daily challenges to squeeze a little more out of my understanding and continue the thesis “page by page”.

Beatrice is a PhD student at the Institute of Environmental Physics in Heidelberg, investigating complex dynamics of Earth’s climate. Searching for overlaps between theoretical approaches and experimental data, she seeks to access the mechanisms of climate variability. *Her PhD is still far from being finished, but you can find her book on quantum computing here: https://bit.ly/36NNq0S

Humans of Physics V: Guillaume Berthet

This is the fifth installment of Humans of Physics, a series focusing in the researchers more than in the research, for once.

The first time I entered in the room where the cold atom experiment was, I couldn’t express what I felt… Wires everywhere, optical fibers sending lasers all over the room, a metallic vacuum chamber hidden by a huge amount of copper wire, optical fibers and water cooled magnetic coils… A big mess. My supervisor asked me to have a look inside the vacuum chamber through a thick glass. After five minutes trying to find the right angle I finally saw it. A red bubble surrounded by darkness. This was a billion atoms trapped in the vacuum… I was really impressed.

My first day as a PhD student was a bit stressful. My first task was to switch on the experiment. There were so many things to think about and so many parts of the experiment that I didn’t understand ! I slowly completed my task thanks to the wise advices of the other PhD student. I remember him saying : “coffee break ?!” when the experiment was finally working. I really enjoyed this moment because we took time to know each other and to talk about physics. At lunch time, we ate together with students, post-docs and researchers from the group. In France, lunch time is at least one hour long (sacred time) and it is the perfect moment to exchange about our difficulties and how we solve problems encountered in the lab. Talking with them helped me to feel better and more confident.

I spent the rest of the day working in the lab with my supervisor. I remember him speaking fast, talking about Feshbach resonances, Thomas-Fermi regime and other names I never heard about… This was exhausting but also very interesting. My day ended and I went to bed, knackered, with the feeling that I still had so many things to learn.

Three years later, I have built a new experiment. I know it well enough so I can draw it from memory. I know what Feshbach resonances are, and even more important: I can share my knowledge with younger students during lunch times and coffee breaks. Experimental research is a long process that requires passion and patience and if it weren’t for my colleagues I wouldn’t have such a good memory of my three years as a PhD student. I had the opportunity to work with French, German, Danish, Italian, Greek, Chinese and even Indian students and researchers always pleased to share their skills and knowledge. This was a rich human and scientific experience. Older PhD students and supervisors practice is necessary to handle the experimental setup. Discussions with colleagues from other groups is essential to have a good understanding of data analysis. Showing our results on conference is the best way to ensure we find the best way to share our research.

It is definitely not a job that you can do on your own…

This is the fourth installment of Humans of Physics, a project which searches to show how we scientists are just like everyone. Dispelling some stereotypes is probably a good idea, from time to time. 

For me, the cliché is true. Every morning I get woken up by the birds. It’s actually a chime but it still feels good and I congratulate myself for having found it on my phone every morning. It’s seven, I try to roll between my sheets as long as possible without falling back to sleep. Usually the fool-proof way to do that is to put on a podcast of yet more grueling news. I’ll start with the short German one. Then if I need more time, the English one. At some point around twenty past seven I will crawl out of bed, do my morning stretches, get dressed and go downstairs to get breakfast. I’ll balance the warm bowl of porridge and the tea upstairs to my room. While clutching the cup I will try to keep myself motivated for long enough to write a little to do list in my diary. I will make sure my workout, watering my plants and going outside is on there as well as all the work stuff. Sometimes I will drift off at that point, either too excited to focus or too bored to be bothered. It’s usually videos on Youtube on why polar bear numbers are rising in some places in the Arctic or pictures of London on Pinterest in anticipation for my master’s that I will start in October.

Focus has never been something that I found in my bedroom but since the pandemic hit in March, I was forced to make it work, for better or worse. I try to work in two-hour chunks, sometimes I take extended breaks in between my pomodoros. I will start to sing Christmas carols on the top of my lungs to lose the building sense of frustration when nothing is working, or I will go out to cuddle the family dog when I am too excited. What helps me stick to my desk is the pot of tea I will cook after my breakfast tea. I always stay where the tea is. My work is concerned with the comparison of ocean temperatures and currents in the North Atlantic in hope to find out more about how ocean currents change over time. I try to crunch numbers produced by climate models, I put them into plots and maps of the North Atlantic which I will spend forever to make as intuitive (read: pretty) as possible. I look up how to make a certain type of plot in online forums, I look for bugs in my code.

By the end of each two hour slot I will be severely exhausted and by the second or third slot I will definitely need a break. My preferred way of getting out of my head at the moment is a run through the fields near our house. This usually also means more time for podcasts: self-help ones, those about the latest science or long interviews are all great for running. The evenings are now a strictly work-free regime. I will read, watch Netflix or have two-and-a-half hour discussions with friends over facetime. By eleven I’ll be back in bed, still devoted to science in my sleep by giving the free computing power of my phone to medical research that uses artificial intelligence.

Guillaume Berthet loves to get his hands dirty in a lab. As an experimental physicists and PhD student in Paris he cooled atoms close to the lowest temperature in the universe.

Humans of Physics IV: Shirin Ermis

This is the fourth installment of Humans of Physics, a project which searches to show how we scientists are just like everyone. Dispelling some stereotypes is probably a good idea, from time to time. 

For me, the cliché is true. Every morning I get woken up by the birds. It’s actually a chime but it still feels good and I congratulate myself for having found it on my phone every morning. It’s seven, I try to roll between my sheets as long as possible without falling back to sleep. Usually the fool-proof way to do that is to put on a podcast of yet more grueling news. I’ll start with the short German one. Then if I need more time, the English one. At some point around twenty past seven I will crawl out of bed, do my morning stretches, get dressed and go downstairs to get breakfast. I’ll balance the warm bowl of porridge and the tea upstairs to my room. While clutching the cup I will try to keep myself motivated for long enough to write a little to do list in my diary. I will make sure my workout, watering my plants and going outside is on there as well as all the work stuff. Sometimes I will drift off at that point, either too excited to focus or too bored to be bothered. It’s usually videos on Youtube on why polar bear numbers are rising in some places in the Arctic or pictures of London on Pinterest in anticipation for my master’s that I will start in October.

Focus has never been something that I found in my bedroom but since the pandemic hit in March, I was forced to make it work, for better or worse. I try to work in two-hour chunks, sometimes I take extended breaks in between my pomodoros. I will start to sing Christmas carols on the top of my lungs to lose the building sense of frustration when nothing is working, or I will go out to cuddle the family dog when I am too excited. What helps me stick to my desk is the pot of tea I will cook after my breakfast tea. I always stay where the tea is. My work is concerned with the comparison of ocean temperatures and currents in the North Atlantic in hope to find out more about how ocean currents change over time. I try to crunch numbers produced by climate models, I put them into plots and maps of the North Atlantic which I will spend forever to make as intuitive (read: pretty) as possible. I look up how to make a certain type of plot in online forums, I look for bugs in my code.

By the end of each two hour slot I will be severely exhausted and by the second or third slot I will definitely need a break. My preferred way of getting out of my head at the moment is a run through the fields near our house. This usually also means more time for podcasts: self-help ones, those about the latest science or long interviews are all great for running. The evenings are now a strictly work-free regime. I will read, watch Netflix or have two-and-a-half hour discussions with friends over facetime. By eleven I’ll be back in bed, still devoted to science in my sleep by giving the free computing power of my phone to medical research that uses artificial intelligence.

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Shirin is a student researcher at the University of Heidelberg and will start her MSc in Physics at Imperial College London this autumn. Her research focuses on the interconnections between ocean temperatures and currents in the North Atlantic and how likely a “The day after tomorrow” scenario actually is.

Humans of Physics III: Asier Piñeiro

This is the third installment of Humans of Physics, a series focusing in the researchers more than in the research, for once.

“I stare at equations for a living,” used to say my Tinder profile – and it’s not too far from true. My day usually looks like a mixture of scribbling mathematical formulas, programming them into a computer, and then trying to make sense of it all in meetings, blackboard discussions or just by staring long enough into the void. That’s at least how it looks like from the outside.

Inside me, every day is more like an intellectual and emotional journey – sometimes a calm stroll, sometimes a roller coaster. It all starts and ends with (small) questions about the (big) world. When I’m playing with ideas and trying them out I feel in flow, I feel alive. When ideas don’t work out, I get frustrated and start doubting about myself, wondering why I do what I do. But then, a new idea. And I dream of revolutions. An error, and I feel stupid. Another idea, and I feel like Einstein. Yes? Nope. Doesn’t work. Perhaps a different question?

No matter the answer, what makes the journey to me truly meaningful is sharing it with my friends and peers: sharing our enthusiasm about little findings; our random conversations about the world; and, my personal favorite, those Friday afternoons when our tired minds will forge the most amazing idea that is gonna solve physics once and for all. Except it won’t. But maybe next Friday.

Asier, seen here in one of his many natural habitats. Photo taken in Arches National Park, Utah.
Asier is a postdoc at JILA (Boulder, USA), trying to understand the games that atoms play with each other when they’re left alone in the quantum world, inside it’s cold, and no one is looking. (aka dynamics of cold many-body quantum systems)

Humans of Physics II: Eleanor Crane.

Note that it might be that none of what I say is true. Don’t believe me and check for yourself – that’s the foundational rule of being a physicist.

Physics seems to attract the obsessive type, the intense, on-it, keen beans. Those who are mad to learn, calculate, experiment, discover.

In some of us, this desire to burn carries over into other aspects of life: writing, dancing, climbing, film-making, building radios, public speaking, anything, all of it. And there’s one aspect which I observe in my friends, which carries over to the extra-curricular activities: scientific rigour. Life gets busy as a physicist – we’re obsessional, remember, which means when we get going there’s no stopping us – but whatever gets done gets done well. And we always seem to find time to do more.

Once my dad needed help to move a large fridge-freezer up two flights of stairs. He knew there was a friendly face in the flat above, a guy who was out of a job and nearly always around.

He went to ask him, and the reply came: “Sure! Hmmmmm… I think I might have time next Tuesday.” My dad always used to say that it’s those who are busiest who can make time. Maybe that’s what I love the most about physicists, the desire to always fit in more activities, like creating this website and packing it with more physics-goodness.

Humans of Physics I: Felipe Montealegre.

This is the first of many short recounts on the lives of physicists. We hope to dispell some stereotypes about physicists, and open a window so that scientific outreach can be sometimes also about the scientists, their hopes and anxieties, in the context of their science.

The alarm sounds and wakes me up. I know myself: I set it a bit early so I can chill, browse reddit, check instagram, the usual. Anyway. I then head to the kitchen and serve myself a bowl of my personal delight, cereal. Maybe I’ll have a coffee? I’m surprisingly unattached to coffee even though I enjoy it a lot.

With cereal, the physics of the day starts.

There’s this neat website where physicists usually upload their papers before they’re published, arxiv.org . I’ll browse the website to see what’s new, skim through a few papers that catch my attention. It’s like easing myself into the workday, it’s technically work-related but you don’t need to put in a whole lot of energy into it, so it’s a nice slow start to the day.

The rest of the day usually flies by. I go into “math mode” –I put my headphones on and work on my research. Sometimes the day is short, sometimes long. Sometimes I’ll end the day on a high, and happily play music; sometimes, I end the day abruptly because the math gets too confusing.

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Felipe Montealegre. Ph.D. student in Uni Köln

Gender and unconscious bias in quantum science

As the start of our new series on humans in physics, I would like to give a personal opinion on the lack of (gender) diversity in the natural sciences and its connection to the very human phenomenon of “unconscious bias”. I wrote this article for celebrating “Diversity Day” in the quantum science research cluster in Munich.

Continue reading “Gender and unconscious bias in quantum science”