Wednesday, April 22, 2015


The book I'm reading at the moment, Sechseläuten, got me onto the football metaphor of the title.  It's soaked with this stuff.  The sections are called First Half and Second Half.  I've progressed all the way to Extra Time by now.  But the book isn't about football, and I didn't buy it in the mistaken belief that it was.  I bought it, during a layover in Mannheim on my way back to Heidelberg last weekend, because it had it big red sticker on it proclaiming it to be the number one bestseller in Switzerland and because of its title.  I want to learn about the Swiss from it.

Sechseläuten is a public holiday of long tradition in Zürich that took place last Monday but passed me by nearly completely.  I live in Aargau, the neighboring canton, and had to work that day.  Then, on the bus back home, I read that the Böögg had lasted for twenty minutes and that summer would be miserable.  I was as clueless as you probably are reading this.  What's the Böögg, and what does it have to do with summer?

The book, a crime story set in Zürich, enlightened me in as much as its first major scene is the burning of the Böögg during the Sechseläuten ceremony.  I learned that Sechseläuten initially celebrated the beginning of summertime when the workday would end at the ringing of the six-o'clock-bells and not at nightfall as in winter.  The Böögg is a cardboard effigy of winter, in the shape of a snowman, its head filled with explosives.  To chase out winter and celebrate the arrival of spring, the Böögg is burned on a big pyre near the shore of Lake Zürich.  Originally separate, these two events are now conflated. 

The time it takes for the cracker in the Böögg's head to explode foretells the quality of summer.  A quick explosion means a hot and dry summer.  The average over the last half-century is 16 minutes.  I didn't check how the numbers correlated with the weather.  I haven't written much over the last month and a half either.  Too busy.  The new job is different from the old one and takes some getting used to.  It's the first time I work for a company.  The contrast to academia is striking.  You know the cliché of the cog in the wheel.  That's what I am.

In all my previous jobs, I was working for myself, doing my own projects, with failures and success depending primarily on myself and eventually coming to rest on my shoulders.  This is not to discount the contributions of others or to deny that science is collaborative.  It's just to say that at the end of the day, everyone is responsible for himself.  If you don't get your projects published, you're not going anywhere.

Except into industry, possibly.  In a company, your interests are not the primary driver of your work.  There's a strategy and objectives and milestones and a lot of novel lingo.  There are different departments that work towards shared goals, with continuous interdependence.  I still organize my day (around frequent meetings) and prioritize and come up with things to do, but I can't kick back and read the internet anymore because someone else depends on my work.  It's rather exhausting.

It's ok when I do things I know, when I process data or think about crystallography.  But most of the time, the things I'm dealing with are totally foreign to me.  When I changed labs before, I would start contributing almost immediately – ideas, jokes, nonsense.  The science was a bit different, but I had read up on it, and the environment was familiar.  Biochemistry is biochemistry.

At the new jobs, it's different, and I'm rather quiet, trying to ease in without anyone noticing that I haven't got a clue.  What do I know about integrated circuits and their readout logic, or the finer details of memory management?  And what about ptychography?  How am I supposed to highlight the advantages our detectors offer in such experiments when I can't even pronounce the technique?  There's so much learning to do, I could spend all day reading and listening to experts.

I used listen to podcasts while walking home from work in London.  I tried this on the bus here.  My commute takes the same time, but I am not the same.  In the mornings, hours before I would roll out of bed in London, I'm not awake enough to hang on to spoken words.  Even the Bugle is too much sometimes.  In the evenings, I'm just zoning, dinner and the sofa on my mind.

Tomorrow I'll find out how well I've adjusted. It's halfway through my probation period (though without a halftime break) and I have a meeting with my boss to discuss my performance so far.  I think I've been doing all right, but I'm curious to know what he thinks – and criticizes.