Thursday, May 12, 2016

Rewarding talent and competence more than aggression?

The main message my friends (mostly male) and I get after applying for jobs is that we were not aggressive enough in presenting our achievements. But is this the most desirable quality? It seems to be rewarded across all fields ranging from politicians to professors. If you look at the US elections you get a prime example of the system of values that permeates our society.

As a physicist I often read sexual harassment stories that made it to the news and sometimes hear about those that did not get that far. Is such behavior the fault of our selection process more than of anything else? Do we take other qualities like talent at face value only when they are coupled with an aggressive presenter? Do we often become blind to the lack of content when the presenter is aggressive enough?

Meg Ury has a well written article in Scientific American on how to end sexual harassment in astronomy. She proposes speaking up, taking allegations seriously and dealing with them. I agree that a transparent process that deals with such allegations is necessary in all companies and universities, but I don't think that's enough. I also believe that our selection process has to change its bias.

This is an email I received from one of my friends with a Cornell PhD, who is talented as well as empathic and kind:  "All is well at my end. We recently had a baby girl. She is about 7 and a half months old now.  I have a 3 year research grant from the government, but after that things are again a bit up in the air. The money for this 3 year cycle has also not been sanctioned - so all my work currently is unpaid!  Pay or no pay, academia is pretty ruthless - so one has to keep working." She goes on explaining that she likes the work she does, but that she would still like to be paid. I see the grant application process in science as another form of harassment rather than as a way to promote talent. It's just too complicated to be functional as are many other rules. 

I am not a physicist or astronomer, so why should I care? 
Problems in the world are related. Our indifference to global warming, to the mistreatment of animals and of the humans who manufacture the goods we use is related to how we select our leaders, and to how we educate our children. 
Without the make-up?
Instead of selecting competent leaders, we obey CIA's manuals on how to sabotage the productivity of our companies and universities almost perfectly. We make rules that contradict each other and are too complicated to read in one sitting. We design official channels that cannot be followed without serious threats to one's sanity. We select leaders who are aggressive, but too old and too connected to oil money to change a heavily dysfunctional system for the better because we've heard of them before and because they have been taught to take advantage of our hatred in presenting themselves.

Disclaimer: I do not own any of the images in this post. They are randomly picked from the web.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Moving again: my life as a scientist

Me temporarily parked in a handicapped spot at Cornell
Most positions are temporary, but in science positions come in a particular class of finite. There are so few permanent positions and each selection process is so biased that the probability of getting one is almost non-existent. Yet most young scientists hope that they are special enough to make it. This keeps them going together with the love for what they do and a certain lack of flexibility, which comes from the fear of change.

There are some benefits from traveling, but what comes to mind now as I think about moving again are the questions and the stares I get from people on the street.

I have a lousy German accent, and had a strong accent in English when I was first in the US. So, I have never been considered to belong to any of the places I lived in. The typical questions I still get are: where am I  originally from? how many siblings do I have? how (on Earth) did I succeed with my (inferior) background to work in a university?

In light of our fear of migrants from Syria, it makes sense to answer these questions in writing.

0.1 Is my background really inferior? Mircea Zaganescu guided my brother through his first attempts of understanding relativity when he was in his teens. The physics wing of the university in Timisoara is now named after him. There is also a physics contest that bears his name. The primary school nr. 6 is named after Anisoara Odeanu, a writer who lived across the street. The street I was walking to school on and the national theater are named after the brother of a family friend, Olga Grozavescu. She was the first woman from Romania to receive a PhD abroad, which even then had to be recognized by the university in Bucharest. She had to take an exam with Nicolae Iorga (Romania's greatest historian), who asked Olga: "Tell me about your brother".  Traian Grozavescu had been so talented and handsome that soldiers stopped fighting when they heard him sing. So, he would sing when the injured had to be carried out. When his body was taken home from Vienna there were more people on the streets to mourn his death than there had been for the prince whose murder started the first world war. While these are all fairly minor historical figures, I grew up with their stories and they played some role in shaping my life. Mihai jokes that Lugoj is small enough that they may add a memorial plaque for us some day.

Grandpa and Grandma
0.2  What about my family? When I think of my time in Romania, I think of family and friends.  My grandmother was the best Mathematics teacher I have ever known. She had been my ideal for strength, stability and common sense. My mother is an outstanding doctor. She represented intelligence, strength and beauty. Tusa Tavi (my great-aunt) was gentleness and propriety. She had a degree in Mathematics, too. Grandpa was persistent. He had been a silvic engineer and had the courage to shape and save lives. My father was a doctor like my mother. He has a more tumultuous personality. Tanti Keti (Ecaterina Zaganescu) and Tanti Mia (Maria Sacalus) matched my mother in both kindness and beauty. Mihai and I thrived on their stories and on their cookies.

Back to the original questions:

1. Where am I  originally from?
I am from Romania. It's a country in the middle of Europe - next to the Black Sea. If pressed for details I would add that the story of Dracula was inspired by a Romanian prince, and that we have also had a good football team, outstanding gymnastics and more recently very talented tennis players.

2. How many siblings do I have?
I only have one brother. His name is Mihai and he is a Caltech PhD.

3. How did I succeed with my background?
At first, through tests and exams, and later through more work and more exams. I took the SATs and Mathematics GRE when I was 18, and scored well. I was accepted to a number of universities in the US including the University of Rochester, Reed College, and Washington College, but decided to go to Illinois because of Ed Seidel, who was visiting NCSA for 3 weeks. He and Paul Saylor helped me enroll full time in Parkland College, and part time in the University of Illinois. Ed decided to complicate his vacation with me because my brother had told him "Ed, if you think I am good, my sister is even better". With more help from Galina Wind, Linda Lorenz, Mats Selen, Gary Gladding and others, I obtained a teaching assistantship. It came with a tuition waiver and the stipulation that I graduate in a year.  With help from Mark Williams and Linda Lorenz,  who arranged exams for me and advised on which courses I should take to make the fastest exit, I graduated from the University of Illinois with a major in Physics, and a double minor in Mathematics and Computer Science. While in Champaign-Urbana, Doina Costescu and her family made me feel at home, and Greg Daues and Jayashree Balakrishna were the best collaborators a person could hope for. I then went on to pursue a Cornell PhD. I took my last exam and obtained my doctorate degree at 25. I still work long hours, and hope that the world (and the physics community) finds my work interesting.

Mihai and I were almost always surrounded by outstanding people.  But most of the people we knew when we were children are now dead. So, did they matter? what did I learn from them when I was growing up?

When things get bad and I lose faith, I think of them and of their stories. They believed in me and trusted me, and this gives me strength. I learned to ask questions, and trust my instinct.  They loved me unconditionally, yet taught me to be humble. They tried to always give their best, and ask for nothing or as little as possible in return. They also used to say that it's OK to turn when there is no way forward, and it's OK to fail, and it's OK to quit. When I fail, I think of them. After Tanti Keti's parents parents died when she was 14, she moved in with her aunt.   Then the house where her aunt lived was bombed, and Keti was left alone in a trench in a night-gown. She decided to join the war as a nurse to search for her twin brothers. Whenever I'd get hurt, my aunt would ask her (or Tanti Mia) to come. When she would hear "there is blood", she imagined waves of it reaching the door and my injuries were always minor by comparison. She was not able to help her brothers live through the war, but she moved on and continued to love and help people throughout her life. My troubles always seem so little relative to what they all went through.

 Yet, I often feel alone. All my colleagues and friends are busy. There are no friends to visit with my children. They won't have the kind of guidance I had, and I feel that I have failed in some fundamental way - I don't have a network of people who are close enough for them to meet and learn from.

Moral: Avoid drawing conclusions about people you don't know just because they come from a certain part of the world.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

When a man is lonely, all he needs is a chicken ...

It was close to midnight. I was trying to persuade Edward to sleep by telling him that all the birds (including the chickens) have been asleep since sunset. We walk outside to check that everything is quiet, and suddenly see a chicken walking under the street lights. Edward was eating an apple, and excitedly shared it with the chicken who had trouble falling asleep just like him.

Edward and the black and white hen
Edward: "When a man is lonely, all he needs is a chicken. Then he has a small friend." I pointed out that I was also there. So, he pragmatically agreed that he can cuddle with me, but not with the chicken, and concluded that I was needed as well. He then accepted to get in bed, and he was soon asleep.

The next morning he was passing by a sleepy-looking chicken and feelingly said "Frumoaso ... poate esti in ocluzie" ("Beautiful one, perhaps you are in a state of intestinal occlusion"). The statement is not so unreasonable as it might seem. If chickens are not treated for parasites regularly, the parasites block the intestinal tract and the animal dies. No chickens died in the two weeks we were there.

Edward really liked the black and white hen (pic above) because he thought she looked just like his father - I personally did not see the similarly, but I suppose it's a matter of imagination. I cannot imagine how either Andy or I would look as chickens, but Edward thinks he can. His favorite hen was Codchi. She was of a reddish color and had a really long claw nail. She had been rehabilitated in our garden after being sold out from an egg farm because she was no longer producing enough eggs. She was there in our February visit, but did not make it till May.
Codchi, Edward and David

In addition to chickens our next door neighbor also had two puppies. We borrowed one for a day, and the children named her Siri. We do have a dog there with a reddish looking fur. Edward thought him very fox-like. He referred to him as his "Barking, walking, personal flea bag" and to himself as the "Walking, talking flea bag". We did use some solution against the flee, but the dog has such a thick fur that I am not sure it accomplished much.

Piki and Kiki & the Romanian flag
We were in Romania in February and May. Each time we stayed two weeks. These are pictures from that period.

With the tortoises
Edward will be six in August. For his birthday he wants to get two chickens, two ducks,  two pigeons, and a goat. His dream is to train them so that  they can accompany him everywhere. He also wants two terrapins, but for that we would need a pond-like aquarium - not that any of the other animals would be easy to take care of. David was nine in February. He is more interested in drones and other forms of electronics.

We already have two small tortoises. The tortoises are named Kiki and Piki.