Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year on the Beach

After  two weeks spent driving between physics institutes, we spent the last day (December 31st) on the beach.   We climbed on two nearby rocky “islands”, talked about how one would define an island, and about how seas evolve. We also jumped over the waves, and re-evaluated our lives on the sand. Mihai built a one-dimensional model assigning a numerical value to the important people and things in our life. I was not very convinced by the model, but it was fun. I felt re-energized, refreshed, and, in this last day, happier than I had been in a long time. 

Water, Sun and Mihai: the elements that have always made me happy. The water was cold. However, when the Sun was high up, the beach was very pleasant. The writing on the left likely advises readers to not climb on the rocks. Many signs did not include an English translation, which to me meant that Israelis are proud of their languages, and even though they have an incredibly beautiful country, they do not care much what happens to their tourists. Besides, the rocks did not seem dangerous. So we climbed them, but were careful not to slip.

I have not been to a beach alone with my brother in a very long time. When I was visiting him at Caltech, we used to go to Malibu and the LAX airport beach. This was before either of us had children. We would go swimming there independent of the time of the year, and then climb the rocks in Malibu. It was always refreshing (and cold).

Every place feels a bit like home. Mihai had left Romania when  I was 17. We have never lived in the same place since. Sometimes I did not see my brother for a whole year or even two, but every place we met seemed like home to a certain degree. Every time we are together it feels almost as if we have never been apart. Similarly, any room or apartment that contains my mother and the children can also easily feel like home in a few days independent of whether it's in Israel, Martinique, Switzerland, the US or Romania. This trip to Israel just the two of us happened courtesy of Easy Jet & the Israeli border officials, who did not let David fly.

No lemons to make lemonade.  Used oranges instead. After sitting on the beach and evaluating our impact on the world, and the impact of the world on us, it was fitting to go orange picking. We had bought honey, and the wild oranges are very sour in Israel - so ideal for lemonade. Our theory is that these are the oranges that the Romans must have eaten. They taste similar to lemons, but the taste is more complex. They are also softer than lemons and easier to juice. People do not eat them either in Israel or Spain, but with the help of our big jar of honey we made  very good juice!

More on Bees and Honey. I have always thought very highly of bees and honey. When we were growing up my maternal grandfather, who helped raise us, loved honey. Honey was eaten with the soup spoon. He used copious amounts of it from a big barrel bought from my other grandfather (Grandpa Ionel from Galati). Grandpa Ionel had his own bees and produced honey with love. He referred to the bees as his girls. He always talked to them: "go little girl; a little to the left", etc. He said that they knew him, and never bit him. Both my grandparents are gone now, but some parts of them live through us and the love of honey is passed on.
Positive weight loss: courtesy of job applications.

Potae ben boschet/Potae bin boschet. In the spirit of the new country we were in, Mihai came up with a new nickname for me. Instead of “Potae” (I call him “Cotarla” and so we are even),  I became "Potae ben boschet" or "Potae bin boschet" - depending on how he felt like. For those of you who do not know this, "Potae" and "Cortarla" are synonyms and mean dogs of all kinds that are not pure breed. Bin is the arabic for son of, and Ben in Hebrew has the same meaning (David ben Gurion means David, the son of Gurion while Osama bin Laden means Osama,  the son of Laden; we were told not to use the two names in the same sentence because this will make people unhappy; I, therefore, put them in parenthesis and, of course, imply no connection between the two beyond the ben and the bin). Hebrew and Arabic are the two official languages of Israel.

My new nickname has the allegoric meaning of stray dog from the bush. People keep asking us where we are from, and this seems a suitable answer. When we go to Romania, we are foreigners because we have left Romania 12+ years ago and come from abroad, and when we go anywhere else we are foreigners, too.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Job interviews in Israel

HUJI parking lot
My trip was a two week marathon of meeting physicists - half an hour to an hour each - all extraordinarily intelligent - some famous, some less famous, and a few of Romanian origin. I enjoyed the conversations very much. We discussed topics ranging from atomic clocks to population extinction. I gave four seminars in the Xmas period (22nd-28th of December).  I visited universities and institutes in Rehovot, TelAviv, Haifa and Jerusalem.

I wore suits at each meeting like the one in the picture on the left. I had bought them in Romania from the  Leonard  collection. They wrere manufactured in a clothes factory on Johan Heinrich Pestalozzi 20 in Timisoara. I really like their style and the knowledge that they are made in the city I grew up in gave me confidence.

First Impressions: Israel has a large number of intelligent and educated individuals. Their universities are outstanding, and their physics departments are highly supportive of their researchers. Their departments (and the associated funding) are increasing in size, whereas in the rest of the world departments & universities appear to be shrinking.

The universities in Israel are very homogeneous environments where virtually all professors are men with a PhD from a university or institute in Israel. They seemed to have around one woman per physics department who has a permanent position (e.g., the Weizmann Institute was funded in 1934 and hired their first & only woman assistant professor in physics in 2007; she had just received tenure) and the same number of foreigners (~ one or none per department). They also have many visitors. Many of these visitors are Jewish, but not-originally from Israel (i.e., are not yet fluent in Hebrew and Arabic), but still proud of their ancestry. It is practical to have many visitors in the X-mas period since it is a time when many can come because they are on vacation.

This lack of diversity is common throughout the academic world, only in Israel it seems more severe than in any other country I visited to date. The obvious factors that exacerbates a problem that exists worldwide is the instability of the region.  Not maximizing creativity, which is the result of choosing people with similar backgrounds, is likely to have worse consequences for a country like Israel with so many serious political problems that need ingenious solutions than for a safe country like Switzerland, where there has not been a war in the past hundred years. When I mentioned this, the argument made was that physicists do not impact politics, and so my arguments are naive, which is certainly true.  I am not a politician and will likely never have political influence on the world. But if one looks at the political world, Angela Merkel, the most influential woman in politics and arguably the most influential politician in Europe, has a physics PhD. The new president of Romania is also a physicist, and there are others.

There are more men who (1) have Israeli PhDs, (2) want to go back to Israel after successful postdoctoral fellowships abroad and (3) are above the defined hiring threshold than professor positions in Israel. So, there is no need to make the extra effort to attract and hire outsiders that may also be above this threshold, but where that is harder to tell. After all their departments function, and function well. If outsiders apply, they are looked at in detail and on an individual basis, and they think this should be enough for such top institutions as theirs. I was told Israel has the 4th highest number of start-ups per capita world-wide. They also obtain a large number of grants and fellowships from the European Union - more than most other countries. So, all our existent measures of creativity and success are very high in their existent homogenous environment, and it is hard to give concrete advice on what to do. Since Israel is a recent country, it is also a special case where they still have more built-in diversity than in other countries.

A more silent version of this argument is made in most other academic & non-academic institutions throughout the world. There are enough talented men for the society to not need to make the extra effort to train women or other field-minorities, and there are not enough women & minorities already trained in the hard sciences to choose from. The percentage of women who drop out is comparable to that of men, and so there the leak in the pipeline is not more severe. Further, given that our definitions for success are met by good institutions world-wide with their current homogenous staff, there is no need for change.

On the other hand, it is known that a society with a more diverse leadership is more creative, and hopefully kinder and less destructive. However, in order to have a serious push in such a direction, it has to be arguably profitable both in terms of time invested and money.

Overall, Israel itself is clearly a successful country, but the world has made such a mess of the Middle East (and of Russia and Ukraine and other countries, too) that it is hard to claim we weigh the parameters for success in the right way. It is also true that physics institutes and departments are not the place to lay the blame for political troubles. So, likely I am combing problems that perhaps should not be combined.

East vs West Jerusalem: did we feel the war?
Mihai parked the car once in the East part of Jerusalem, which is Palestinian dominated. It was beautiful, too, but in the few hundred meters crossed he saw over a dozen army kids with machine guns to keep the road and people safe. We did not investigate East Jerusalem further. There is no actual border in Jerusalem (so East Jerusalem is still part of Israel), but the GPS draws a line there that looks like a border due to the history of the region. Extra security in any of the other cities we traveled to was not noticeable. Teens hitchhike and feel safe. There are no holes in buildings from shelling or bullets, and there was no feeling of war beyond the fact that citizens participate in the army for 3-4 years and part-time later on if they become officers & are proud of this; 3-4 years is a ridiculously long time for being in the army instead of in college, but it must be cool to be 17-18 and to drive planes and tanks, and fire machine guns even if only for training purposes. Some of the physicists we spoke with did say that they participated in several wars, and it was interesting to me that they could still do highly theoretical research and be good at it/interested in it after such experiences.

Immigrant in a country of immigrants?
 Even though Israel is a country of immigrants, the second generation did not appear to speak their original language (or somehow identified as Israeli and were ashamed of speaking their original language). The Jews I knew, loved and admired as a child had all been polyglots who were open to languages and easily learned new ones. In Israel Hebrew and Arabic are enforced. They teach English as a second language in schools, but there are no schools in English or German or any foreign language for that matter. Incoming foreigners who want a smoother transition for their children and would like to maintain languages that their children already speak have no option other than the regular school in Hebrew. There was little diversity in books in the stores I stepped in. All books appeared to be in Hebrew at the Mall. Of course, Hebrew is similar to Arabic, and both languages are spoken by populations that grow and so it would be useful to know them for the future... unless the internet can convince the whole world to switch to English.

The universities and research institutes do take care of their own people, and so professors who have families and return to Israel have a much easier time than if they stay abroad. However, at first sight, it did not appear easy to be an immigrant in Israel.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas at the Dead Sea

Floating in the Dead Sea
In the desert
Imagine walking through the desert in hope of finding water, and instead reaching the Dead Sea. It lies 400 km below the level of the planetary ocean. Its water feels like oil. The skin on the face hurts when one first enters the water, and it’s beyond painful when the water enters the eyes. The dead sea looks like a sea and even has waves, but nothing lives in it other than bacteria.

For our traveler, all hope would not be lost. Even one of the saltiest water bodies on Earth, has rivers with fresh water than flow into it.  We found one! 

The raft
Water flowing into the Dead Sea
For a more thorough search for fresh water, one can either walk along the shore of the sea or build a raft. We found raft! It was built from empty water bottles.  Next to it, there was a bigger boat with a flag. The fancy person (or the Israeli army) who owns the vessel could have been using this raft to reach it. On second thoughts, the army actually had planes flying overhead and thus did not seem to lack equipment. Perhaps it floated from some other place or the person who owned the boat liked to save money, and also thinks that falling in the dead sea is good for the skin. Either way, we enjoyed investigating it. Since I was certain I would not enjoy falling in the Dead Sea water, which does have waves, I did not attempt floating on this raft. 

Dead Palm Trees.  Not enough Water.
The Dead Sea does not all belong to Israel. On the other side of its shore we could see Jordan.  The West Bank (the Palestinian territory that is in part controlled by Israeli military and borders Israel) also contains significant Dead Sea Shore. It is considered unsafe and people there have about 10 times lower GDP per capita than in Israel.

We did not drive further to see the Sea of Galilee. Even though it is called “a sea”, it has fresh water. Its water eventually flows into the Dead Sea through the river Jordan. The Jordan flows through the desert. Rivers that flow through such arid territory gather lots of salt.  This salt is being dumped in the Dead Sea. 

Next to Dead Sea, we found a place with salt and mud. The ground had an interesting structure with many deep holes. Salt looks like ice. There was a small salty pond where the water looked frozen. 

Walking on water & salt.
Mihai was able to walk on the salty water, and made me take pictures of that accomplishment. There were once several old ladies in a small village in Romania who were so amazed by his memory and intelligence that they fell on their knees in front of him and called him a miracle of God. If they were still alive, they would be interested in seeing this picture. I will always love my brother, but my devotion is not enough to fall on my knees in front of him as of yet - especially on salt where walking barefoot feels like walking on needles. I also know that he would have sunk had he tried to walk in the middle of the pond. 

The saltiest place on Earth is …. NOT the Dead Sea, but instead a little lake in Antarctica called the Don Juan Pond and it makes perfect sense! A water body in the dessert cannot be saltier than the Dead Sea because once the water has reached its maximum salt concentration, the extra salt deposits on rocks. This salt is sold as bath salt across the world.  Antarctica is cold. So, the concentration of salt that water can have there is higher.

What happened in the past?
 Ships had once docked here.
Once upon a time the Dead Sea was a regular sea.  It slowly became saltier and saltier until it reached the maximum possible salt concentration. Since water (with salt) does not flow out of the Dead Sea, it will stay salty. The Dead Sea shrinks because water from the Jordan river is now used for irrigation. We were now standing in places where ships had been docked. Scientists consider putting water from the Mediterranean sea in the Dead Sea, but they decided against it because it could turn the Dead Sea opaque.

What does the future hold?
Are Seas like the Dead Sea our future? Well… not for a long time. All other seas communicate with the planetary ocean, and that lowers their salt concentration. An example of a Sea that could become like the Dead is the Caspian Sea, but it is saved by a gulf that takes away some of its salt, and makes it fit for life. However, if the magnetic field of the Earth was lower, then we could lose Hydrogen through the atmosphere, and the water evaporated would no longer return to Earth. All seas would become saltier, and saltier, and all life forms from the water would die.


 It was nice to visit the Dead Sea, but I do not think I would like to be living in the desert close to the Dead Sea. The tents with beds and nothing else did not look inviting to me. OK, they must have had a place to wash somewhere with salt-less water and there were some fancy hotels nearby, too. But I still prefer a sea with water that feels like water. Because it is so salty and salt absorbs water, the Dead Sea water evaporates harder than regular water and gives an oily feeling. Clothes wet with Dead Sea water take a longer time to dry. When the water does evaporate it leaves a thin layer of salt behind even on the skin. 

We brought some Dead Sea water and salt home for the children to play with. Both are heavy. 
The water is heavier than regular water because of all the salt.  They have tried to reproduce the dead sea water from the right concentration of Dead Sea salt & tap water, and have also used the water to melt snow.

 My bag was very heavy (EasyJet has no weight limit for carry-ons) and I was not sure what I had in it until Mihai reminded me of the Dead Sea water (all in recipients of 100 ml or less) and salt. They sold Dead Sea salt in the airport, but ours was cooler: it came directly from the source in big boulders! It was not grainy and common like all bath salts. It consoled me to know that I carried a value of $20+ dollars in salt. 400 grams of Dead Sea salt sold for $8. My shoulder stayed bruised for some time.

I am not planning to sell the Dead Sea water or salt because it was hard to carry. I am, however, unsure I want to bathe in it. It is still uncertain of how one proves its positive properties. If nothing lives in such water, then how can it be so good for the skin?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Splitting over Christmas

I was glad to be able to bring a piece of the Dead Sea to the children, but sorry that they could not be there. I am still angry that David could not fly due to the random application of the 6th month validity of passports rule. His passport was valid for only 5 months after our return instead of 6 and this was deemed not enough. Since Edward did not want to spend his Christmas without David, they both returned home with my mother.  Israel is the one country in Asia that does not have the 6 month valid rule for travelers, but the neighbouring countries do. This means the requirement is not listed on most embassy websites (or on the Easy Jet site), but still enforced at the discretion of the airlines. Not splitting a family for Xmas is the definition of where they should have made an exception. David had school, and had to be back, and I had work and so there was no chance of either of us wanting to stay in Israel for any time beyond the date on our return tickets.

To allow David on the plane, EasyJet asked for a letter from Israeli immigration with David’s name stating that he should have been allowed to fly. Of course, a number of people behind us were denied boarding for this same reason after waiting in along line for the checking of the validity date on their passport. EasyJet should have done this on the computer before printing the boarding passes, and avoid the line, but then they get less money because people plan advance and do not need to reschedule flights. So, there was not time to secure letters. Further, the Israeli border/immigration are some of the most unpleasant authorities on Earth and do not generally write letters. When we were in customs, they stated they would have agreed to talk to the airline, only if the airline called them, and they were not available when the airline called them. So much for customer service.

While waiting for the world to be fair place to live in, I will be changing David’s passport and deal with other bureaucracy for that, which involves documents apostilated according to the Hague convention, and translated by an authorized translator, and more waiting in line. The Israelis officials told me that I made the choice to split when could have chosen to not go at all and canceled all 4 of my seminars, and so it’s all my fault and I should not complain. And, then, of course, they said that plenty of idiotic rules exist in the US and in Europe, which causes them to be mistreated, too [and so it's perfectly justified to behave the same way instead of trying to avoid and correct problems].

I was impressed by the lack of ability to question any kind of authority, while being on average more intelligent than people in the rest of the world. When traveling through this beautiful country full of treasures and temples, one sees so many people who read: in buses, trains, planes or even on the street. Furthermore, highly educated people in Israel are the only educated people on Earth who have a significant number of children (3-4 per professor vs none or one or two in other countries with none being the more prevalent number), which may make them the only possible leaders of the next generation. Yet, based on the lack of progress and the low income in the territories they occupy, they also have a feeling of entitlement and superiority that the Nazis must have had when prosecuting Jews that does not come with much regard for a human life that is not their own. Will the new generation be better or worse? It's hard to tell: neither their parents nor they extended families spend much time with them, both parents are encouraged to work long hours, grandparents live their lives, etc. Europe seems better than either Israel or the US in its treatment of both working and non-working mothers, and I am glad for that.

I did meet a large number of very talented people with whom it was a joy to interact. So, I should not be so negative. Additionally, since I gave four seminars, their center for excellence reimbursed my expenses and gave me a large perdiem, which covered all loses and left some extra income. However, I still wonder if my priorities are right. I spent the first part of my visit  depressed and crying without obvious motive, and my first talk sucked. Luckily, the other 3 went well, but I still wonder: should I have gone? or should I have stayed home with Edward and David or  even taken them somewhere else instead? It’s just one more time when I am placed in a tight corner and made to choose by righteously feeling bureaucrats between family and career. How often should I make this choice even for little things like a trip over Xmas? Are they right in blaming me? after all I choose to work and stay in science instead of on a farm when I can afford a farm ... so should I choose living on a farm instead? is all my education just dust without much value? am I of any value?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

America is back?

I wholeheartedly support President Obama's immigration reform. The various states in the US do not seem to realize how serious their economic problems are and how much we all need this reform to help the US exit the recession and take the rest of the world back up with it. Promoting innovation by supporting outstanding minds is crucial to fixing the economy. The US still has some of the best universities in the world, and losing those graduates is something that it can not afford. It's only natural to give them all the right to work, and to try to convince them to stay.

Some of the most beautiful minds in the US were and still are owned by immigrants. Among my Cornell professors Saul Teukolsky, who co-advised my PhD thesis together with Ira Wasserman, was educated in South Africa. Ira's father was a Jewish immigrant from Poland, and his mother was from Bucharest. Both Ira and Saul were generous, patient, and involved in our joint work. Saul is best know for the Teukolsky equation for gravitational wave perturbations around spinning black holes. His equation opened a new field that we now call gravitational wave astronomy. Gravitational waves are ripples in the curvature of space-time. Just like accelerated charges produce light waves so that we have wire-less internet, accelerated masses produce gravitational waves.  More recently his numerical relativity group collaborated with Caltech to produce the simulations for the Interstellar movie. 

Many other Cornell professors were first generation immigrants. Hans Bethe had been the director of the theoretical division that built the atomic bombs that helped end the second world war. He was called the "supreme problem-solver of the 20th century", and had, of course, also been a foreigner from Germany.  I met Edwin Salpeter , who had once been a Jewish immigrant from Austria, in his early eighties when he was suffering from leukemia. He still came to many seminars  and often asked the most relevant questions in the room. His career contributions were momentous.  He had worked with Bethe to explain how stars evolved from an initial mass function. He had also been the first to understand quasars. And even at eighty he had a beautiful family with whom he was able to collaborate. In addition to his outstanding physics research, he was working with his daughter and grandson (a teenager at the time) to model tuberculosis. He also argued against wars and was pro-women in science. 

The contribution of immigrants does not stop here.  In America, there once was a prominent Nazi who was so prominent he had dinner with Hitler. The company he led -- International Business Machine corporation --- was, on American soil,  entrusted to develop the machine that put Hitler down. It was the computer that put the last nail in the coffin of Hitler and British Military secrecy that later sealed its fate into a museum archive. The rest is history ... and who has not heard of IBM?

Then think of Ford, Google, the Internet -- it all tends to start here, grown from international intelligence, nurtured by American freedom. 

If this reform is finalized, American Freedom will be back! For America and for the World! 

Thank you, Obama!

Note:  I wrote the first part, and my brother, Mihai Bondarescu, wrote the fun part starting with "The contribution of immigrants does not stop there". We were very excited when we wrote this, but I do not think Obama's immigration reform is in place. It remains to be seen when/whether/to what extent it will be approved.