Stuart Firestein: The Pursuit of Ignorance (TED talk)

[youtube=] In one of my new favorite TED talks, neuroscientist Stuart Firestein gives a supremely entertaining yet deep account on his view of what doing science actually is all about. He really captures some essential things that I think are difficult to convey to laypeople – or indeed for scientists themselves to explicitly recognize. He gives a number of great quotations I wasn't familiar with before:

Thoroughly conscious ignorance is a prelude to every real advance in science. -James Clerk Maxwell

Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating 10 more. -George Bernard Shaw

Every answer given on principle of experience begets a fresh question. -Immanuel Kant

Firestein finishes with a poignant critique of the education system. Really, really recommend watching this.

Via Open Culture.

Physics Nobel to Englert and Higgs

As widely expected, the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the Higgs boson. The committee chose to award only the theoretical prediction, omitting the experimental teams at CERN to the annoyance of some. Nobel tradition notwithstanding, apparently there were no strict rules preventing the inclusion of CERN as an organization for the physics prize, which would indeed better reflect how fundamental science is done these days. Admittedly, the Nobel committee gave a very visible nod to the experimentalist in awarding the prize

for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

As always, Nature News and Ars Technica have good stories covering the prize, and there's also extensive reporting by the BBC. However, even awarding theoreticians for this discovery was tricky; as the Nobel committee puts it, the award was for the "Brout-Englert-Higgs (BEH)-mechanism", with only François Englert and Peter Higgs (both in their 80s) sharing the prize since Robert Brout deceased in 2011. Some have argued that very important earlier contributions from Anderson should had been recognized, as well as independent but slightly later work by Kibble, Guralnik and Hagen. As Nature News puts it:

In 1964, six physicists independently worked out how a field would resolve the problem. Robert Brout (who died in 2011) and Englert were the first to publish, in August 1964, followed three weeks later by Higgs — the only author, at the time, to allude to the heavy boson that the theory implied. Tom Kibble, Gerald Guralnik and Carl Hagen followed. “Almost nobody paid any attention,” says Ellis — mostly because physicists were unsure how to make calculations using such theories. It was only after 1971, when Gerard ’t Hooft sorted out the mathematics, that citations started shooting up and the quest for the Higgs began in earnest.

So numerous were the theorists involved, that Higgs reputedly referred to the ABEGHHK’tH (Anderson–Brout–Englert–Guralnik–Hagen–Higgs–Kibble–’t Hooft) mechanism.

...but I guess the ABEGHHK'tH-mechanism just doesn't roll off the tongue as "Higgs" or "BEH" :)

For additional context on the theoretical developments, see this post on the LHC's Quantum Diaries blog. However, if you have any knowledge in quantum theory, I would most warmly recommend putting in the effort to read the Scientific Background from the Nobel committee, which describes the preceding and parallel developments, and later significance and discovery, in great detail and as clearly as can reasonably be expected, giving full credit where it is due. The committee even visibly acknowledge the role of the US in the discovery, which some felt needed to be explicitly defended. Of course, the Popular information document is more accessible, and very well written.

In the end, despite the potential for controversy, the decision seems to be reasonably well received, with Hagen showing the most emotion:

"Regarding the committee’s choice, “I think in all honesty, this is what I would have done,” says John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland." (Nature News)

"The whole of CERN was elated today to learn that the Nobel Prize for Physics had been awarded this year to Professors François Englert and Peter Higgs for their theoretical work on what is now known as the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism." (Pauline Gagnon via Quantum Diaries)

"The discovery of the Higgs boson at Cern... marks the culmination of decades of intellectual effort by many people around the world." (Rolf Hauer via the BBC)

"My two collaborators, Gerald Guralnik and Carl Richard Hagen, and I contributed to that discovery, but our paper was unquestionably the last of the three to be published in Physical Review Letters in 1964 (though we naturally regard our treatment as the most thorough and complete) and it is therefore no surprise that the Swedish Academy felt unable to include us, constrained as they are by a self-imposed rule that the prize cannot be shared by more than three people. My sincere congratulations go to the two prize winners, Francois Englert and Peter Higgs." (Tom Kibble via BBC News)

“Faced with a choice between their rulebook and an evenhanded judgment, the Swedes chose the rulebook,” Hagen said in a blunt e-mail shortly thereafter. “Not a graceful concession by any means, but that department has never been my strong suit.” (Robert Hagen via the Washington Post)

“It stings a little,” Guralnik said. But he added: “All in all, it’s a great day for science. I’m really proud to have been associated with this work that has turned out to be so important.” (Gerard Guralnik via the Washington Post)

To wrap up, Ken Bloom via LHC's Quantum Diaries blog offers a very practical perspective of science in the trenches:

I suppose that my grandchildren might ask me, “Where were you when the Nobel Prize for the Higgs boson was announced?” I was at CERN, where the boson was discovered, thus giving the observational support required for the prize. And was I in the atrium of Building 40, where CERN Director General Rolf Heuer and hundreds of physicists had gathered to watch the broadcast of the announcement? Well no; I was in a small, stuffy conference room with about twenty other people.


So in the end, today was just another day at the office — where we did the same things we’ve been doing for years to make this Nobel Prize possible, and are laying the groundwork for the next one.

Practicalities of moving abroad (VP3)

Image from Baltech If you didn’t catch them already, read the first and second parts of this post series.

An integral part of moving abroad for a postdoc is, well, the actual moving bit. Depending on the length of the stay, possible ownership of an apartment or house in the country of origin, and family considerations, the move can have many forms. In my case, since I am staying for (at least) 2 years, don't own an apartment in Finland, and have no binding reasons not to, I am moving everything to Vienna. This is thus what I will discuss in this post. Also, I am moving from one EU country to another, which makes things significantly simpler, so bear that in mind as well.

A key consideration in such a move is how to get one's stuff safely to their destination. Depending on how far you are moving and how much stuff you have, renting a van and driving it yourself could be an option. It's about 1400 km from Helsinki to Vienna, but taking a ferry to Poland or Germany would cut the distance to less than 1000 km – definitely drivable. Since I don't have that much stuff,  in principle this would had been an option for me. However, it's quite difficult to rent a van from Finland that you can return to another country, while I hear it's much easier elsewhere in Europe. Obviously, if you are moving to another continent, a professional moving company is the only option.

In any case, as I mentioned in the previous post, I have a grant specifically meant for covering moving costs (thank you, SKR!), so I didn't think twice about hiring a professional moving company to handle the move. Based on recommendations from friends and the offers I got via a handy competitive bidding service, I chose the company Pegasus Moving. They were kind enough to match the one slightly better offer I got, and some of their people are friends with colleagues of mine. I also paid for an insurance for all my stuff, whose total value I estimated at 10000 €. The cost of the move is 3750 €, and the insurance is only 220 € on top of that, so it was a non-brainer. I also got some sturdy foldable cardboard boxes for packing my stuff, which I'm in the process of doing right now.

They will come pick up my stuff next Monday, so hopefully everything is packed by then! Moving the stuff to Vienna will take 8-10 days, so I'll have to live out of a suitcase for a few days at both ends.

The other very important ingredient of a successful move is naturally the apartment one is moving into! Again, within the EU, there are very few barriers to renting an apartment in another country – likely they will want to see your employment contract and salary, as was the case for me – but apart from that, funded postdocs seem to be welcome tenants. Your mileage may, however, vary.

Again my situation was made much simpler by the aforementioned moving grant. In Vienna, most apartments are rented by housing agencies, and unlike in Finland, their fees are paid by the tenant. One friendly broker told me that this is the way it should be to ensure that the tenant, and not the renter, is the principal customer of the agency. Not sure about that, but I did receive very good service from a couple of agencies despite my lack of German. In Vienna, the agency fees seem to typically be 2 months rent, plus some mandatory registration costs etc. With a 3 month rent guarantee the fees stack up to almost 4000 euros, tidily eating up the second half of my grant. Sure am glad I got it.

I started browsing apartments on the internet 3-4 months before the move, but this turned out to be a bit too early. Most apartments get rented in less than two months, so even if you find a nice one, they won't keep it empty for that long. But it was useful to find good sites and get a feeling for the market beforehand – incidentally, rental prices in Vienna seem to be about 2/3 of the Helsinki level, which is nice. Having found a few nice possibilities, I set up several showings with the brokers for two days in the of July, and booked a flight to check them out in person. Although one could make a choice just based on the pictures and a floor plan (and perhaps having a local friend or colleague visit a showing), going there in person definitely made things smoother.

In the end I only ended up going to the showings for both of my top 2 apartments. They were extremely different in nature for about the same price, and I before I knew it, I had offers from both just waiting for my signature to confirm. A couple of rounds of Facebook consultation amongst my circle of friends,  and an evaluation of the yearly temperatures and rainfall trends in Vienna, cinched the case for a bit smaller apartment with a large roof terrace. As is typical for me, it was the first apartment I looked at. The agency offered a package service for handling the electricity contract, registering with the authorities and various bits and pieces for 200 €, which I also took.

Now I'll just have to find a nice  fridge (want: ice cube machine!) for the new apartment, as they apparently almost never come equipped with one down there. At least it's not missing the entire kitchen as I hear is not uncommon in Berlin :)

Apart from those two major issues, there's a bunch of practicalities to take care of. I've had to let go of my current apartment, end the internet, electricity and insurance contracts, register the move with the authorities, and so on. Nothing particularly different from just moving within the country.

On the Austrian side I still haven't got much else apart from the apartment set up. To get internet you need a bank account, and to get a bank account you need to be registered with the city officials, and to do that you need to have the official signed contract for the apartment. I'm just getting the last bit in the chain sorted out now. So I've figured that I'll take care of all that when I'm there. Of course, I'll get a phone number and email from the university, and will have to buy a laptop from my grant there (holding out for the new Haswell Macbook Pro's, though). I can graciously keep my present Aalto laptop until then.

Speaking of email, leaving my present affiliation at Aalto is a big deal. I've had the same email – first as a student at the Helsinki University of Technology and later as a graduate student and postdoc at Aalto – for 11 years. All of my online life is linked to that email. So I am now future-proofing my online presence by getting an forwarding address, which I can then point to where I happen to be affiliated at. I only wish I had done this 6 years ago :) I'm also sure there are similar services in other countries as well.

Those were pretty much the main points I had in mind. I'll be sure to update / follow-up if any surprising issues crop up. You're also very welcome to ask in the comments if there's anything particular you would like the hear more about!

I've been seeing and saying goodbyes to a lot of friends over the summer, and am holding a farewell party of sorts next weekend. Thus I feel socially well prepared for the move, which is something I feel is a very good idea to pay some attention to. You don't want to feel like there's loads of unfinished business before starting a new life in a new country.

So, I have a one-way flight to Vienna on Saturday August 31st morning – wish me luck!

Peter Suber's Open Access

Peter Suber's 2012 book "Open Access" is now – appropriately enough – openly available from the publisher, as announced by Peter on Google+:

I'm happy to announce that my book on OA (Open Access, MIT Press, 2012) is now OA. The book came out in mid-June last year, and the OA editions came out one year later, right on schedule. My thanks to MIT Press.

As it says on the tin: essential reading.

Securing a postdoc grant (VP2)

If you didn't catch it already, read the first part of this post series.

You have completed your PhD, and are now trying to figure out what to do next. Much has been written how there simply isn't enough academic positions for number of PhD's that are trained, and certainly that is a real possibility that you (and I!) should be willing to face. Alternative career paths are gaining more prominence, and certainly there are advantages to working in an industry where your degree is relevant, or in journalism (my #2 preference would probably be to work for some place like the Nature Publishing Group).

However, let's say you are like me and find academic freedom and the individual pursuit of a scientific career irresistible. There are some good resources for tips on what you should consider. As I mentioned in the first post, doing a postdoc period abroad is generally considered a de facto requirement for aspiring academics. While our field in Finland has the fortunate situation that most PhDs get rather secure funding through to graduation, after the PhD you are typically responsible for securing your own funding. That's where writing and applying for grants comes in.

While it's always a good idea to explore any and all options in your network (does that Japanese professor you've had the pleasure of visiting have a project that could fund your postdoc? Does your advisor know of any open positions? etc), writing your own application for a postdoc grant can be the best option, and something you should really consider doing in any case. It does take a fair amount of time and there is much to criticize with the system, but since it's what we are stuck with for now you'd better get used to – and good at –  it.

The best way to hear about potential grants are naturally your slightly-more senior peers, who have (hopefully!) just gone through the process with success. Additional good resources are your University/Department mailing lists and notice boards, research support services (or their equivalent), information events organized by funders, and any funding tools your University might use (e.g. Research Professional). Personally I found about all of the grants I applied for via the grapevine.

In the last 1.5 years, I've applied for three major and two supporting mobility grants. The major grants – those that would completely fund my salary and some research costs – I applied for were the Academy of Finland postdoctoral researcher grant (twice), the European Union Marie Curie Programme's Intra-European Fellowship for Career Development (MC-IEF), and the Austrian research funder FWF's Lise Meitner programme incoming postdoc grant. Additionally, I applied for mobility money (funding to help cover the costs of moving and living abroad) from the Foundations' post doc pool (a joint call for all foundations' postdoc funding in Finland) and the Teknologiateollisuuden 100-vuotisjuhlasäätiö (in Finnish; basically an industry-oriented foundation).

Sometimes it takes a long time for the results to come (Academy of Finland's 8 months can be pretty frustrating), and in the meantime, you should consider writing more applications. While no one will give you a grant you didn't apply for, it's always possible to turn down a grant in the unlikely case you receive more than one overlapping grant. Due to the long waiting periods, it's also quite common to be keeping the topic on the back burner in the meanwhile and getting results already before the start of the grant.

The results from the Marie Curie call came first, arriving by email late November last year. A look at the Evaluation Summary Report (ESR) quickly revealed that while I was  over the thresholds (score limits that have to be exceeded to be eligible), I clearly did not score high enough to have a chance of getting the grant. As stated in the information letter accompanying the reviews: "For information, in this particular call it is estimated that funds will be available to finance around 614 projects out of the 2938 that have passed all evaluation thresholds." It's a huge and highly competitive call.

For some reason, it took the FWF longer to handle my application for the Lise Meitner grant than we expected. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since I was visiting Vienna in the beginning of March and sitting in the office with the people I will be working with when they suggested checking the status of the call – and finding out that I had received the grant! There had been no official letter sent yet, and the only way of finding out about the grant was putting one's name in the FWF project search form, and seeing the below hit there:

M1497 Nitrogen and phosphorus doped single-wall carbon nanotubes
Principal investigator SUSI Toma
Address Strudlhofgasse 4, 1090 Wien, Österreich
University / Research institution Fakultät für Physik Elektronische Materialeigenschaften, Universität Wien
Approval date 04.03.2013
Start not yet begun
Scientific field(s) 1210 Solid state physics (25,00%) 1245 Nanotechnology (25,00%) 1250 Materials physics (25,00%) 1901 Electron microscopy (25,00%)
Keywords Carbon nanotubes, Nitrogen Doping, Phosphorus Doping, Spectroscopy, Materials Processing, DFT

Needless to say, it was a really, really good feeling to finally know for sure that I would be able to continue my research (with my own research plan and funding, no less!) for the next 2 years; not to mention knowing where I would be living :D I had the excellent chance to celebrate this with my future colleagues and their families a couple of days later.

After returning to Finland, I immediately notified the Postdoc pool coordinator that I had received the grant to cover my salary, about a week before they were due to announce the results of the call. In the original pool application, I had asked for salary costs as well since I didn't know at the time if I would have any other source of salary. Thus I changed my application to only apply money for mobility costs. This allowed me to ask for significantly less money, and for the entire 2 year period.

I'm not quite sure what role these developments played, but a week later the results came out and I received notice that the Finnish Cultural Fund had decided to support my pool application to the tune of 8000 euros – less than the 20k I had asked for (which included money for rent and living costs), but just sufficient to cover all of the moving costs. This additional money will make it very easy for me to hire a professional moving company, and pay the agent fees etc for the apartment in Vienna.

Thus when the Academy of Finland results finally came in early May, I had already accepted the Lise Meitner grant, and thus would had been in a bit of conundrum about what to do if they had also decided to fund my application. "Luckily" this was not the case, and I got a rejection from them. Interestingly, my scores were significantly lower than in the first application to them a year earlier, even though I had done a great deal of polishing and tuning of the proposal in the meanwhile. Goes to show how much the referees matter in getting grants... which is an unfortunate reality in this game.

So was my first real trial-by-fire of securing an independent postdoc position in an excellent research environment happily concluded! Now I'll have the actual pleasure of doing the research that I promised to do (and then some; see below :) and (hopefully) not start concentrating on applying for the next round of grants just yet.

In the next posts in this series, I'll share my thoughts on how to choose the place for a postdoc: what professional and social considerations might be important? I'll also cover the practicalities of my move, and write updates on settling in to my new home city of Vienna.