Tuesday, January 27, 2009

melancholic magic

Last night I finished another of the Best American Short Stories I'm currently reading. Before going to sleep, I flipped the page and inserted the bookmark at the beginning of the next. Today, the writer of that story, My father on the verge of disgrace, died, and my heart is filled with great pain. John Updike was one of the heros of American literature, a faithful creator of characters and moods, of stories and novels for over fifty years, a towering light in the world of letters.

I encountered his writing first when in college in Jena. I would visit the local library and scour its meager shelves of English books for those I hadn't read yet. Those were the times before Amazon and ubiquitous internet, and practicing a language was hard if you didn't have native-speaking friends.

I stumbled upon the Rabbit tetralogy but didn't warm up to it. Not much was going on in the pages, nothing that could captivate the hyperactive mind of a college student, nothing that would satisfy a inexperienced reader. I returned the book disappointed, and didn't lay an eye Updike for a good five years.

When I moved to the US, in a fine example of mirror symmetry, I dove into the German section of the Marriott Library at the U, though I could never hope to finish the thousands of books on the shelves. American literature and, more broadly, the brilliance of English writing, didn't reveal itself to me until I started reading the New Yorker, much later during my stay.

That's where I met John Updike again, a very different Updike than the one from Rabbit days. To me, John Updike became the uncontested master of the short story. He wrote about the quotidian, the banal sometimes, in simple terms and without fluff. I remember a story where a middle-aged man (possibly divorced, like so many of his characters, or unhappily married) drives through the rural expanse of his past and ruminates on the life that passed him by. On the way to some sort of reunion, he hopes to conjure the memory of brighter days. There is no drama in his actions, and no twist yanks him from his path.

Updike's mastery was that he made such ordinary proceedings compelling to read. I was drawn to the next paragraph not by suspense or excitement but by a feeling of caring and wonder. Updike shrouded each minutely detailed encounter – shopping at the apple farm, turning left at the intersection like his father used to do way back when – in a fine blanket of melancholy, to eerie effect. A feeling of sadness would creep over me without my knowing at first, and grow.

How did his words achieve such stunning effect? I read and reread his stories and could find no answer. His sentences were clear, his words simple. He always put them together without any pretense but most skillfully and created deeply satisfying artworks, even if they measured only half a dozen pages. Though his paragraphs rarely spelled passion, he writing must have been passionate, and I'm sure he deeply cared for his characters, making them come alive on the pages.

I was greatly touched by his writing. His stories of a bleak present, of characters shaped by failure and gloom, rang warnings bells to me. It was impossible for me to avoid jumping forward mentally, imagining myself in the sad position of the protagonist, hovering over the fragments of an exciting life, over the ruins of youthful dreams, resigned in gentle but ubiquitous gloom. I learned about the fragility of the future and about the misery of wasted opportunities. I think I am a more positive person for that, focused on the present and its promises. Thanks for this, John, and good-bye.

It shouldn't surprise that John Updike's death has moved the New Yorker to open their archive and release a chunksome of older pieces. More and more of their writers also contribute to a Remembering Updike section.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

the lonesome death of William Zantzinger

Forty-five years ago, a young white son of a tobacco farmer came to town to have a ball. As part of a raucous crowd in a posh hotel, he got drunk on juvenile arrogance, ill-founded feelings of superiority and plenty of whiskey. Towards the end of the night, when the boozing picked up and rambunctiousness spread, he had an explosive encounter with a barmaid who he berated for being too slow in replenishing his drink. His sense and judgment lost in alcohol, he drenched her in hateful abuse, threatened her from his position of power and smote her with his cane. She fell to the ground, recovered briefly but soon collapsed with what may have been heart failure, and was sent to a hospital where she died eight hours later of stress-related complications resulting from the attack. The woman was middle-aged, black and a mother of eleven.

This is a story that many people know. It was immortalized in all its tragedy by Bob Dylan who turned it into a powerful commentary of pervasive racism and shocking lack of humanity. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll was written after the poet had read about it in a newspaper report documenting the case and the conviction of William Zantzinger of assault and manslaughter. Zantzinger spent six months in a county jail for his crime and paid all throughout his life, his name forever tarnished.

What we hear in the song is Dylan's version of the story, close enough to the newspaper report but artistically transformed to carry its message most convincingly. He speaks for poor Hattie Carroll whose life was taken and who can't present her own story. Zantzinger was frequently invited to paint himself in a less condemning light, to recast the crime as the tragic outcome of youthful, booze-fueled idiocy, to find excuses publicly. He always declined. He accepted the responsibility for the killing and deserves respect for leaving the legacy of Hattie Carroll in peace.

William Zantzinger died on the third day of this year, ending forty-five years of infamy. Bob Dylan still tours and sings, though not about Hattie Carroll. The case is closed, apparently.

a better scientist

From the previous post, at just a nick over a thousand words the longest I've ever written on this blog, you were able to tell that I was less impressed by the BBC documentary “Science and Islam” than I wish I would have. But I loved it for the frequent sagacious observations about the philosophy of science and walked away with a refined understanding of the nature of a scientist.

I am engaged in the daily business of science, a business that is, for the most part, much less enviable and exciting than presented on a TV documentary. It can be outright dull. Scientists labor towards solving problems, and much more time is spent laboring than actually solving anything. While the answer is surely the goal, struggle is the way. The very special moments of sweet success are separated by seemingly endless periods of grinding effort, generously sprinkled by set-backs and failures.

To keep one's optimism, to stay sharp in the profession, to remain productive and become successful, one has to learn to love effort and see the significance of the small steps on the way. What is frequently painful and discouraging, draining energy and sinking spirits, must be embraced because it embodies science. The saying that the journey is the destination is nowhere more appropriate than in science where there is no end. Every small experiment yields observations that lead to insights, sometimes influential, sometimes subtle. Sometimes the relevance of these insights is thoroughly ignored at first and only appreciated later. But the ground is broken and the journey can continue.

Many of the insights of the Muslim scholars, especially in the field of medicine, appear ridiculous to a modern audience – no matter how progressive they might have been in their time. Their particular results and successes mean nothing today. But what sounds nonsensical to us now was at some point a dramatic advance over older ideas. It provided following generations with either additional understanding to directly drive their research or questionable views to argue with and improve upon.

This line of thought applies not only to the past but to the present as well. A break-through discovery made today, one that advances the state of the art and overthrows decades of foolishness, deserves a prominent place in the history books, but only until someone else comes along to overthrow what will by then be inaccurate or even obsolete.

The point of science is not to find the ultimate answer – though this could be a powerful motivator, I guess – but to take steps on the way. Every scientist knows that his contribution is only the stepping stone for those who come afterwards and will carry on, defining and resolving new, unanticipated challenges. The significance of this is sometimes hard to appreciate.

I believe that for science to work, the most important characteristic its practitioners must possess is the capacity of doubt. Without a doubtful eye on past accomplishments and on one's own current work, progress cannot be achieved. Blind faith in established truths is a roadblock to scientific advances. Fundamental facts, no matter what celebrated text tries to immortalize them, are only valid until they are overturned. Nothing is absolute.

It is exceedingly rare that the original description of a break-through theory goes essentially unchallenged over years, let alone decades or centuries. One theory that comes to my mind is Charles Darwin's, which has stood unwavering for 150 years now. Almost all the ideas in his book “On the Origin of Species” would be written in much the same way today as they were a century and a half ago, merely appended by findings made since but not substantially modified and certainly not contradicted.

Yet for all the glory later bestowed on his accomplishments, Charles Darwin's early life was unremarkable. He observed the world around him and tried to answer questions that puzzled him. He spent decades making sense of his observations and refining his answers. He banged his head against walls of bewilderment and discarded ideas that turned out not to make sense. He pursued relentlessly what he was passionate without ever getting trapped in doctrine. He never took old wisdom for granted. That's how a scientist should be.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

the power of doubt

Over the last three weeks, I've followed a BBC documentary in three episodes titled “Science and Islam”, which presented the scientific history of the early Muslim empire and its continuing legacy. Take the words algebra, alkali and alcohol. They have Arabic roots (like many other words starting with al) and are bright monuments to the scientific and technological achievements of that culture. When Europeans lived in the Dark Ages, Arabs developed mathematics, optics and astronomy, chemistry and medicine. Most of this rich heritage is forgotten in the Western world these days.

The Baghdad-born British nuclear physics professor Jim al-Khalili set out to change that. He traveled to Egypt, Syria and Iran to discover evidence of early scientific triumphs that would later, from about the time of the Italian Renaissance, strongly influence European thinking. He talked to experts in the West and in the Middle East to get background information and a sense of context. With his own cultural background and command of the Arabic language, he connected easily with local sources. His inherent sense of curiosity and a scientist's capacity of wonder made him a compelling host. Add to this pictures of places I visited last summer, and you can imagine how captivated I was initially.

Each episode focused on one particular field of science and a concept considered essential for its thriving. The first episode illustrated the development of medicine and showed how the Arabic language contributed enormously to efficient study. Here, my first doubts rose and I was stirred from the comfort of uncritically consuming pretty pictures and sweet talk. It was claimed that Arabic was specifically designed to be precise and unambiguous. I dissent. This is only relevant compared to modern English, which is devoid of any logic regarding spelling and pronunciation. However, there is no advantage over other modern languages like Spanish or German and certainly not over Latin, which prevailed in Europe when Arabic rose to prominence further south.

I would even say, after having studied the language for a few months, that Arabic is particularly vague and ambiguous. Signs (not unlike diacritic marks) denoting short vowels or their absence are optional and not normally added. Newsprint and informal writing is devoid of them. What is written can be understood from the context but might be pronounced differently by speakers in different corners of the Arab world. Latin could have sustained the same technological boom. What Arabic had going in its favor was that it was spoken natively in an extremely large area. The ready exchange of ideas that this facilitated, the clusters of inquiry that were set up from Baghdad to Cairo to Granada and the easy interaction of very diverse great minds are what distinguished Arabic science back then and drove it forward. Islam, in contrast to what the title of the documentary implies, had nothing to do with this besides, importantly, not getting in the way.

The second episode took the concept of reason and showed how optics and chemistry were developed. I found no flaws here and thoroughly enjoyed the hour in front of my computer. In the end I got outright ecstatic when the wise words were uttered that early Islamic scientists “didn't get all the right answers, but they did teach us to ask the right questions”. What's more, they urged us to test any answers we find with rigorous experiments because without experiments, theory remains meaningless and sterile. This is of course in stark contrast to what religion advocates, and again I can only wonder at the choice of title for the documentary. Science, in contrast to religion, is based on repeatable observations and stringent experimentation, not belief of faith.

The concluding episode of the series looked at the development of astronomy and how judiciously applied doubt led to a revision of the ancient Ptolemaic view of the universe. When Ptolemy had developed his theory of planetary and astral motion back in Greece more than a thousand years earlier, Earth was considered the center of the universe. Everything else – the moon, the sun, the planets and the stars – rotated around it in crystal shells. Observation didn't quite bear out the theory, and Ptolemy had to reluctantly introduce arbitrary fudge factors and capricious modifications to his elegant model, but it still didn't completely work out. We know the reason why. Earth and the planets rotate around the sun, which is at the center of our solar system. Ptolemy couldn't make this mental leap, and neither could the Muslim astronomers.

The power of doubt is repeatedly evoked in Arabic astronomy. The scientists in the 15th century were aware that something was foul with the predominant model and they did rigorous and extensive observations to get data for the construction of a better model. In the end, they failed, and it was the Polish astronomer Copernicus who threw Earth from the center of the universe and postulated the current heliocentric view.

Why did the Arabs not get it? Might it be that their rigid religious system simply didn't allow for the necessary amount of doubt to work itself into the thoughts of great thinkers? Religion doesn't encourage doubt, and neither does it foster independent thought. Holy books lay out the eternal truth, and dissent is a sin. Seen in that context, it is amazing that Arabic science and technology developed to the extent it did. But on the other hand, why did Copernicus see the light? He was a Catholic, and that religious system is nearly as strict and ruthless as Islam and held absolute power over Europe back then. Galileo experienced the wrath of the Vatican less than a century later when he defended the same revolutionary views.

When the series ended, these questions remained. In addition, the decline of the Arab world was only mentioned in passing and explained cursorily with its refusal of the printing press and the discovery, by European Christians, of the American continent. There is not too much sense in either reason. What kept the Arabs from discovering America and looting all the gold, for example? Why were they sitting on their sofas (or kneeling on their prayer mats) haplessly watching the Europeans gain strength and ultimately outperform them in nearly every field? So many questions remain that the documentary clearly deserves a continuation.

Monday, January 19, 2009

after the silence

It has been almost ten days since my previous post, ten days of silence after a torrent of activity. I have been around but quiet. When the year started I was full of ambition, ready to make this blog bustle with liveliness, make it come alive through frequently updated content. Most of all, I was eager to write, write, write. My productivity over the first 12 days when I posted almost daily surprised no one more than me. Getting high on wordcount that increased by the day, I already saw myself as a writer and was, I realized a week ago, neglecting not only work but my life also.

Thus the blog came to a crashing halt. It was conceived as a hobby. It doesn't pay the bills and it won't make me famous, but I am happy to invest some time in it because it is a means of preserving episodes of my life much like a diary would. Even if it’s not always true to every last word, it will later help me recall the exact details of whatever happened, things I might already have forgotten. Digging in the dark corners of my self, unearthing facets that should better stay undisclosed, I find that I also enjoy the thought of feeble immortality by being archived on the web.

Recently, a deeper end has opened in the shallow pond of my vanity, and I've begun to see this blog as a vehicle to distill my inchoate thoughts, fragments for the most part that swirl around my head without much aim when I ride my bike to work in the morning or the tube into Central London, into something slightly more coherent. I have discovered that there is no better way for me to develop and ultimately understand what’s going on inside my head than writing it down. For fear of losing these precious thoughts among the billion bytes on my hard drive and for keeping accounts with myself, I feel forced to write them down openly.

I had also felt forced to write – anything, really – to keep this blog glowing red-hot, even if the thoughts and encounters that made it onto my pages hardly deserved it. This I justified with the purpose outlined at the start of these pages, the practice and development of my writing. The silence over the last week is a sign that I realized my error. Life is about balancing of priorities, and I had come wobbly. Lucky for me, two friends have shown recently how to cruise on two lanes and stay in equilibrium. To highlight their achievements is why I took to the keyboard again.

First, there is a piece in Times Higher Education by a colleague of mine. Rivka is a research associate in much the same position as I am except she feels the urge to leave her current position and move on more forcefully than I do. Her assay is brilliantly composed, with a rather pedestrian experience, the waiting in line to get theater tickets, as the scaffold on which to hang a number of enlightening and amusing contemplations on all sorts of topics. This is what I would like my posts to look like, except a bit shorter of course.

Second is the inclusion of a post of Stephen Curry's in an anthology of the best science blogging of 2008. Stephen is a professor at Imperial who achieved a little bit of fame with a home-cooked movie explaining his research that was extremely well received. He writes topically, and while not all of his posts are science-related, they are all anchored in his work. And even though his audience knows what to expect, they will forever be surprised by details he chooses to focus on and by the delightful twists he presents.

I congratulate Rivka and Stephen on their successes. But this blog is about me, and the reason I mention their accomplishment is that I am grateful to them for pointing out what's important. If you want to get the word out, get it out. If you want people to read what you write, direct your writing, get notice and, optimally, find someone to publish you. If your words are restricted to the little world of personal blogs, what you do is nothing more than a vanity project. There is no significance in your writing and time is likely better spent on other undertakings, like work or leisure with friends.

Monday, January 12, 2009


This post will burn carbon and in the process, inevitably, produce carbon dioxide. The oxidized carbon atoms will rise into the atmosphere and meet up with the bazillions already hovering up there. Carbon dioxide molecules have the useful property of reflecting heat radiation, useful because otherwise it'd be too damn cold on this planet to live on. All water would be frozen and life as we know it, water-based, wouldn't be possible.

All useful things, like all good things, should be enjoyed in moderation. It seems that over the last few decades, all moderation has vanished from the journey of the carbon dioxide molecules. There are so many up in the atmosphere that the equilibrium, down on earth, between the heat gain from insolation and the heat loss into space is shifting towards the warm. The curves are quite convincing, the reasoning is it as well. Being a biochemist, I cannot judge the merit of the countless published studies but their conclusions have been in good agreement recently. Man produces CO2, the earth suffers for it, and soon man will too.

Frequently cited vehicles of this carbon dioxide production are air travel, which everyone is in favor of restriction and no one actually does; automobiles, which the car industry is fighting tooth and nail to keep motoring ahead with as much power and size as possible; and the heating of homes, most of which, at least in the less developed parts of the world - like the UK - escapes through thin walls and decrepit windows.

Less appreciated is that the writing of blogs (and immeasurable other activities performed online) produces vast quantities of carbon dioxide. A story in yesterday's Sunday Times 'reveals' (or so they claim) that server farms, data centers and the glowing screens in front of nearly everyone these days generate as much carbon dioxide as all airlines together, about 2% of the global total.

You can take this report as you like. I'd recommend taking all numbers with a grain of salt as long as it is not made transparent how they were obtained and what effects were considered. What is the cost of a search not performed, simply because the machines keep humming? If you want to take the cynic approach and say that Google is only mentioned because it's the big player who has most to lose from negative publicity, that's fine by me too. But there can be no doubt that computing devours immense resources.

It is certainly the case that a computer can be extremely energy-efficient: reading a book on the screen instead of buying and then tossing it, for example, or video-conferencing instead of flying across the Atlantic to meet collaborators. But if you just surf the web or play chess online or write a pointless blog, you're burning the world, bit by bit. My conscience is placated only mildly by the fact that I wrote this post on my Eee, which uses significantly less power than the MacBook Pro.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

belated resolutions

Last year was the first that I made new year's resolutions. I was a neat experience because by reminding me later of what I had in mind diving into the new year, they kept me focused. And indeed, most resolutions were carried through the year and archived as accomplished in December.

This year, I decided to continue what I've started and make it a tradition. As New Year's Day and the night preceding it are a time of exuberance, it's best not to make resolutions right then. A week or two later, the most ambitious intentions might look decidedly out of reach. Now, ten days into the new year and with contemplation having subdued the folly, is a better time.

In God's Child's blog, I read a reflective piece about the meaning of the word resolution. Obviously, we resolve to do something, to reach a goal or complete a project. On the other hand, we should also take the opportunity to solve problems that trouble us and have, in the past, prevented us from realizing our dreams and made the difficult look impossible.

This blog is a fictionalization of who I really am, and as long as my problems are not of general interest, I shall not reveal them, not even fictionalized. But let me say that my main resolution for 2009 is to make up my mind about my career. Before this year is over, I shall know for sure and with conviction what path I will follow, be it academic science, industry, writing, or some of the various other options that spook around my head during those opaque moments between going to bed and falling asleep. To achieve this, I will have to sort out a lot of issues. I must become clear about my passions and honest to myself about my expectations. What can I realistically hope to achieve? Once I'm confident about it, I will take the answer to this question, set my sights on something slightly higher and never look back.

This was the philosophical part of this post. Now comes the prosaic, shortened for fear of repetitiousness. Not only will I run another marathon this year, I will run it in less than three hours. I will travel, either to see new countries and discover cultures I'm ignorant of or simply to see places I don't know. Instead of learning Spanish, as was my goal last year, I'll devote time to the study of Arabic. Maybe by the time my sister and I go Syria, I'll be able to have a two-sentence conversation with a local.

I will read more books than I buy. It has become an obsession of mine to never pass by an Oxfam store without dropping in and carrying out a new read. This year, to make the challenge realistic, I shall finish more books than I add to my shelf. With my eyes in a good dozen books at the moment, this should be an easy feat. On the right I will document my progress.

Lastly, though most importantly and in clear dominance over anything else, I shall be happy. I have been lucky in my life, most of my decisions have be auspicious, and those that weren't can always been seen in the rosy light of nostalgia. My world is a good place, and I'm happy to be here. How can this year not be a good one?


For as long as I can remember, about three decades now, Christmas has always been the same. There were variations every now and then, an inconsequential change of place maybe or a little detail altered, but they didn't do more than affirm the rule. A tradition was started before I was old enough to realize what was going on around me. Whenever I came home in December these last few years, be it from Jena, Salt Lake City, Grenoble, or London, I knew exactly what was going to happen.

The days leading up to Christmas, their number depending on when exactly I had turned the key at home, are spent in frenzied last-minute gift shopping and pass in a rush. The speed slows abruptly on the morning of the 24th. The outside world ceases to exist; we are a family in a home. My sister and I put up the tree and decorate it festively: Silver and red glass baubles, delicate straw and metal ornaments, and, never mind progress, never mind the potential dangers, real candles adorn our tree, a fragrant conifer or branches thereof.

We are an orthodox bunch in other ways, too. Stollen, the fruit cake that Dresden is famous for, is only cut on the 24th. Advent is a time of fasting, creatively reinterpreted as not eating pieces of cake that have enough calories to power all the twinkling lights in all our neighbors' windows for several hours. After the breaking of the symbolic fast, we go to Church for Christmas service. Over the years, this activity acquired a bit of a silly flavor for me because I stopped believing, but I have to admit that nothing gets me better into the festive mood than church bells and organ music, thoughtful words from the priest, the Christmas story and Silent Night from croaky throats. Christmas is, after all, a religious celebration.

Walking home after the service, with a trombone quartet playing from a balcony high up on the spire if we're lucky, comprises the most peaceful moments of the night, the minutes I cherish most. It's quiet on the streets and dark, people move in dreamy slowness, snow might be falling, and the world is reduced to my thoughts and expectations and the love for my family.

At this emotional zenith, we change direction completely. Back in the warm apartment, we light candles, exchange gifts, play with new toys for a while, and later sit down for a quick dinner followed by boardgames and wine. It gets louder and jollier with every empty bottle. Happy hours pass quickly, and it is inevitably past midnight when the family retires into their beds, exhausted but full of glee.

That's how it was most years. This year for the first time, ominous thoughts clouded my merriment. Question kept swirling around my head, not letting me play cheerfully. Why am I coming back? I am no kid anymore, and I don't come for the gifts. In between throws of the dice, I clearly saw myself sitting in the wrong place, on the same old table, playing the same old board games, as if some video sequence had been stuck in the same for decades. Doesn't growing up mean moving on and letting go of the past?

And yet, I don't think I'll give this habit up anytime soon. The other day, I wrote about roots and wings, the place you come from and the places you go to. It seems to me that traditions, like our interpretation of the Holy Night, are the glue between the two. A recent article in TIME magazine puts it eloquently: If ambition and opportunity spin us off in every direction, traditions reel us back to where we came from so we can see how we've grown.

But traditions are also mediators between roots and wings; they let roots and wings interact. New roots, the result of strong wings, can only be grown with the nurturing care of traditions, either adapted from the past or created anew. Without traditions, life is interchangeable and anchorless, and a person such deprived must be puzzled and confused.

The TIME magazine article ends with a fine sentence that will also conclude this post: At their best, traditions make us better; at the very least, they remind us how far we've come and how lucky we are. There couldn't be a better holiday than Christmas to celebrate that.

Friday, January 09, 2009

career development

It was with considerable shock that I realized, one quiet evening between Christmas and New Year's, that it's been four years since I obtained my Ph.D. It's been four years since my education ended formally and my career commenced. At a quick glance, I'm doing all right. I had a fantastic job in Grenoble, well paid, exciting and with my boss as a colleague. My current job is sufficiently paid, lets me manage my own affairs and allows me to live in the greatest city of all. Where is the problem, and why was I shocked?

What I've enumerated in the previous paragraph were jobs, but a list of jobs alone doesn't make a career. There has to be progress, and that's something that I don't see. I'm doing my job, but I'm not going anywhere. I'm not developing, and I'm not advancing. As I can't do forever what I'm doing now, I have to make the step to the next level. For those past four years, the next step has remained elusive.

My C.V. has just about the same bullet points as it did four years ago. I haven't picked up too many new skills, and I haven't had much chance to exercise those that I pride myself in. Over the last four years, I've done pretty much the same work most of the days. That's a scary situation, even if the same work means unchangingly challenging projects that require drive and creativity.

In Grenoble, I learned to handle membrane proteins, but I wasn't fortunate enough with a crazy project to produce any results. In London, I've broadened my system, database and web administration skills and got good at php. Unfortunately, this is a silent skill. I have little written testimony. There is only the lab web page. In any case, unless I start applying for jobs in computers, it's not gonna be of any help.

I have improved my Spanish and picked up some beginner's Arabic, and my skills at the recorder have progressed such that I'm no inevitable ear tormentor anymore. My sister and I even played a handful of duets for Christmas – with mom as the only, and very forgiving, audience. These skills are strangers to this post. I acquired them for my personal satisfaction and will never benefit from them professionally. I doubt I'll ever mention any one in an interview situation.

The questions are thus: Should I devote myself more to my job and focus all my energy on it, inside the lab and out? Should I learn new techniques and pick up skills likely to be beneficial professionally, even if that means investing extra hours besides labwork? To take it one step further: Should I have my life by dominated by my profession? To be honest, this is a hard thing to do. I live in London and want to enjoy the big city as much as I can. In addition, I am not a student anymore and have lost some of the masochistic energy of my youth. Fourteen-hour days just don't cut it for my anymore. At home, at night, I don't want to read papers or work on the structure I couldn't finish during the day.

Maybe the questions are ill posed and my doubts ungrounded. Science is not an activity with a predetermined outcome. It must involve curiosity and eagerness on the side of the practitioner. Conventional wisdom has it that luck will strike at some point. Results will then come forth whose presentation in print and at the microphone will eventually lead to the desired faculty position or into the comfy chair of a biotech company.

Over the last few years, results have been scarce. I have to admit that there are moments when I wonder whether I do the right thing, or whether I'm even the right one for science. The words of encouragement I get are always the same. 'Solving hard problems isn't easy. Keep gnawing at it, be relentless, you shall prevail.' The problem is that other hard problems have been solved but mine are still sitting there staring at me in defiance. What I am going to do with them long-term is one of the questions I have to solve in this new year. Should I continue to pursue or abandon them – and science by extension? Making a decision on that would be quite a step forward.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

roots and wings

It was the great poet, philosopher and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who, among so many others pieces of wisdom, pointed out that, 'Children should get two things from their parents: Roots and wings.' I wholeheartedly agree with this philosophy, but I'm also convinced that there's more to this simple statement than would seem at first glance. A lot of food for thought lies in, and in particular between, these two parental gifts that it's worth spending a bit of time contemplating them.

On the surface, it seems easy. Wings symbolize the need to get out, see the world, learn new things, be open-minded and adventurous. Roots, on the other hand, stand for steadiness in an uncertain world, for strength through familiarity, a source for regaining one's energy and a place to fall back on in times of doubt.

My parents have certainly endowed me with wings and encouraged me early on to use them. I started flapping them tentatively when I was in highschool and have been flying all over the place since then. I've never been held back and always encouraged to explore, to discover, to crave the new. I left home when I was fourteen, though not in as drastic a way as this sentence implies, and my home country at the age of 23.

I never cut any ties, and I cannot complain about the lack of roots. My family has been in the same area for more than sixty years now. In her entire life, my grandmother never moved more than twenty miles - outside extensive travels. I grew up in one town and never moved apartments. The point of departure has frequently changed when I went home, but I always arrived at the same place.

Your place of birth and the home of your family is one definition of roots. It's what Old Goethe meant. But there is another definition, more relevant later in life when your days of crazy innocence are over and you start to look forward and not only at the moment. This definition comes straight from biology. Roots are organs that nourish you, that give you strength and hold you firmly in one place. They are the exact opposite of wings.

At the same time, roots are very much like wings. They are something you carry with you. They are a part of you. Wherever you go, you can sink them in the ground, wait a little for them to take hold, and you'll be safe and strong. Slowly, you'll become part of where you are. These are the roots that your parents can't give you. You have to grow them yourself – or else you won't be able to give them away.

If I have these roots, I have certainly never made use of them. Back in Salt Lake, when I could have expected for the first time to plant myself in a community on my own terms, I saw my stay primarily in utilitarian terms. I was there to get my degree, and I had a visa in my passport that discouraged staying on afterwards. I was there for a few years, and no matter how many it would be – it was more than six in the end – it was meant and understood to be temporary. I didn't grow my roots, for fear of being uprooted at the end of my term.

Almost all of my friends were in the same situation. We had a good time together, we partied, we were comfortable and felt at home. We didn't miss a thing. But we also never integrated into the fabric of society. Outside university, we weren't part of associations, churches or councils. We didn't know our neighbors and we didn't care. We didn't interact with people in the same place but those in the same situation. In this company we found support and fun, friends and soulmates.

We only realized how delicate, even fragile our home was when it fell apart. At about the time I graduated and left the US, a dozen friends did the same. Our world exploded out of existence. Scattered loosely around the globe, our paths now rarely cross. Back in Salt Lake, it is as if we had never been there. New arrivals have moved into our apartments and taken the chairs in our favorite coffee shops. And we are working hard to feel at home wherever we happen to be.

Salt Lake City was a happy time precisely because it lasted so long, and I found myself in the company of people who were there for a long time. We lived with the illusion of becoming rooted in a community, which is better than living outside. Grenoble was hard because it was screamingly temporary. What are you going to do in two years?

I've now been in London for a year and a half, and I have no immediate plans of defecting. The coming years should give me ample opportunity to build a home and to give some solidity to my life. The threat of leaving isn't looming over my head. I could stay forever if I wanted. At the same time, there is this prescience in the back of my head that I'm not going to stay here forever, that I'll eventually grow my roots somewhere else.

Over the years I've mellowed down. My desire to run across the planet has subsided, and I'm less excited by opportunities on distant shores than I used to be. Maybe the unease that I feel sometimes are the tips of my roots pushing to get out and start growing. At those times, I think I might be ready to build a home, and doubt overcomes me that London is the right place to be. It would be great if my parents could advise me on that but as they have given me the best gift already, I have to figure the rest out myself.

Monday, January 05, 2009

music from the other side

I'm sitting here in a run-down dorm room at the University of Nottingham reflecting on a day of talks, choke-full with information and new knowledge. In front of me, a MacBook is spilling out songs that that caress the soul. The minute I'm not thinking about Fourier transforms and reciprocal space anymore I can't help but pity those who can't fully enjoy the greatest band of all, Element of Crime. No one has ever managed to pair poetry with melancholy tunes quite like this. Who is this Dylan guy anyway?

If you ever needed a reason to learn German, Element of Crime is it. If you need convincing, their early albums were actually sung in English. Go listen – and don't come back reading my blog until you've formed, and voiced, an opinion.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

small change

About a year ago, the Bank of England introduced new coins. They didn't change the shape or material of the old ones, and their reverse faces would still show the inevitable portrait of our beloved Queen, but the front was redesigned. A Welshman won the competition. His idea was to transmogrify the five pence coins (one, two, five, ten, fifty) into a puzzle. Each would show a pattern with no obvious meaning. Put together the right way, with the five-pence piece, the smallest of the lot, at the center and the rest arranged around them, they would show the shield of the Royal Coat of Arms, which was also reproduced in full on the one-pound coin.

It is debatable if the new coins were a smart move. At the ballistic rate of decay of the value of Sterling, it seems like a waste of money to invest anything into this currency. Much cheaper would have been to adopt the euro. Just slap the new designs on coins already in existence millionfold all over Europe. No math will be necessary once parity is reached, which can only be a few short weeks away, and the presently mighty euro would cushion any further drop in the value of the pound.

No matter the advantages – imagined, as above, or real – the English are not going to accept the euro anytime soon. The wounded pride of a fallen empire takes generations to heal. What that means, though, is that we now have the new pound coins circulating. It took quite a while after the official announcement until I found the first specimen in my wallet, a penny that promptly infected me with the collection virus. Who is going to be the first to have them all?

The little pieces, two and five pence worth, followed in quick succession. Then the ten-pence disk, much larger than the others, arrived and the seven-pointed twenty. Arranging them on my desk, I could already imagine the final image, the coat of arms. At this point I was happily giving away duplicates to friends who had also caught the virus, but the fifty pee was hard to come by. I finally received it as a gift the day before I left for Christmas. I hadn't collected all pieces, but the puzzle was complete.

Yesterday I went to Nottingham for a conference. The city is well known for its resident rebel and charity spreader, Robin Hood. I expected to see history exploited touristically and was somewhat disappointed when all I saw on the way downtown from the station were shops. The central pedestrian precinct is one of the blandest and least appealing I have seen in a while. I wandered around for a while without finding anything interesting, had a coffee and made my way to the university, a bit out of town, where the conference was being held.

Later that night, a group of us went back to town for dinner and a few beers afterwards. It was then that history, elusive earlier in the day because I hadn't read a guide before coming, manifested itself. A huge and strongly fortified castle loomed up against the darkness as we walked to a pub advertising itself as the oldest in England. First mentioned in 1189, it got its name, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, from an ambitious but short-lived attempt by Richard III to join the crusaders on their bloody journey to the Holy Land.

The pub is set against the walls of the castle. Some of its rooms are technically caves because they have been dug into the rock on which the castle stands. The spotlessly restored building shows its age with pride on the outside and is appropriately funky and eclectically decorated inside. I paid for my beer with a ten-pound note and was returned a handful of sparkling metal. Looking into my open hand, I counted six new pound coins. After scrounging so long for the piece to complete my collection, it was positively anti-climactic to find half a dozen at once.

Friday, January 02, 2009


My friend who had stayed with me for New Year's left for Germany early this morning. I took him to the station whence the train to the airport departed and made my way to the lab afterwards. There were a few things to do, but mostly I wanted to recover my MacBook, which I had stored there over the holidays. I didn't want to lose it in case my apartment would be broken into. After a few hours at work, I went for a cappuccino and a croissant aux amandes at Café Deco. They get the French pastries quite right there.

I'd been sitting for a while, sipping my coffee and reading the New Yorker when the door opened and the crisp but complex smell of an Alpine meadow shortly after five on a September afternoon wafted in. The scent of thousands of wildflowers, fresh hay, and pine needles filled the air. Even a colony of marmots could be spotted. They, or what was left of them, hung around the neck of the heavily perfumed lady who had just walked into the little café.

Her eyes met whom she had come for, and her exlamation cut through the air and drowned the rumble of the espresso machine. The elderly ladies embraced at their table. Over much rejoicing, a little green hat met big, sculpted hair. Lips met expensively smoothed cheeks, and golden earrings banged into each other. Oh, how lovely to see you. How do you do. Is everyone seeing us, can everyone hear? Affectation comes easy in South Kensington.

I had long put the New Yorker aside and started to observe the hilarious scene unfolding on the table next to mine. I turned to my faithful companion, the little Eee, to record the event. The restaurant across the street was kind enough to provide faint wireless to help me find the right words for what I had witnessed. Here you go. Just-in-time publishing.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

first of 2009

Last night I found myself in a crowd that would not have bee out of place at an Obama coronation. Thousands around me pushed and squeezed like they were millions. I had just come from the Tower where I saw the crown jewels and learned about processions and where to use which crown and when. It all felt oddly familiar. People kept pushing ahead with no clear goal beside following those ahead and not getting in conflict with the guys in high visibility vests.

No king or queen was being put into a throne. It was the run-up to the official London fireworks, and everyone was there, heading down to the Thames for a good view. The pyrotechnics were to be launched from the Eye, with the best view from Westminster Bridge. Because of overcrowding of the area, Westminster Station had been closed since late afternoon.

We got off one stop later, just a few steps from the Thames. A sea of people spilled up the stairs and through the gates, which were open. Normally, every tube user has to touch a reader upon entry and exit to have the correct fare deducted from his prepaid card and the gates opened, magically. If you miss to touch out, you get an 'incomplete journey' and are charged four pounds. This hurts particularly if you've already reached your daily cap of about five pounds, after which further trips are not charged.

My friend and I had traveled a lot that day and were safely in travel-for-free territory. We walked through the gates but couldn't touch out. Tube officials verbally pushed everyone ahead, afraid that each little hesitation could lead full-blown congestion down the line. I fingered my pants pocket to get my card out, but the nearest attendant urged me on with utmost intensity. Don't worry, he seemed to say, it's free tonight. The gate is open.

It all might have been part of a scheme, Transport for London's great there-is-no-free-lunch scam as I call it. Free travel on the tube between late on the 31st and early on the first had been advertised abundantly. All the exit gates in the center of town were indeed open. But almost everyone on the train had started their journey somewhere outside that zone – by touching their card in. The next morning, some discovered 'incomplete journeys', charged at four pounds. I did. My friend did, and those I celebrated New Year's with did too. We got our money reimbursed, put back onto the card. I wonder how many did not. And I can't help to assume that Transport for London planned it this way to avoid financial loss with their travel-for-free night.

Last night, I didn't know this, and I had no time to react anyway. We were jolted from the station and into a back alley. Crowd control folks kept pushing everyone one way only. Turn left here, turn right here, keep moving. This is how we flowed down the car-less Strand all the way to Blackfriars Bridge. We could have stayed in the tube two more stops and we would have got to exactly the same place much earlier.

Not much was lost, though, since we found a good viewing point about a quarter of an hour before midnight. The air was calm and there were few clouds; perfect fireworks weather. We had two bottles of champagne and four real glasses. The New Year would arrive in style.

No matter what kind of year it's going to be, I hope it's gonna be good to all of you out there reading this blog. Best of luck and health to all of you.