Love Is Not Just Chemistry

Although I am not an active member of the scientific community anymore, I do stand — as a trained physicist and as a simple citizen — with scientists facing attacks from ultra conservative administrations and all kinds of obscurantist forces.

This is why I haven’t drawn this heart full of physics, chemistry, biology and other natural sciences : because I am convinced that giving the humanities extra support is more important now than ever.

Whether they like it or not, the problems that scientists are facing under administrations like Trump’s or with climate change skeptics are not scientific, they are political. In other words, scientists need tools to be able to deal with this reality : just because people know the facts, it doesn’t mean that they will chose to act the way you think they should.

And isn’t this precisely what the humanities are about ?

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On Carrots And Plastic

winter vegetables

Dear Fellow Root Vegetable Lovers, Vegan Friends and Food Science Colleagues,

A friend of mine emailed me a link to an article that had captured her attention in the Norwegian press, and whose title translates as “Stressed Carrots Taste Worse”. I’m really glad she did, because it made me aware of a terrible carrot storing habit I had to this day. I realize that it was, respectively, an offense to your delicate taste buds, a crude lack of respect for your lifestyle, and a poor recognition of your hard work. Thus to all of you, I apologize.

All these years I have thought I could teach my grandma to suck eggs – or as it happens, to store carrots – and I was so wrong. My grandma, by the way, would have stored her carrots in the root cellar in a container full of sand, but as the article points out, today, luckily, we don’t need sand anymore: we have plastic.

Plastic. That’s were the shoe pinches. I confess that I have repeatedly lost my temper in front of all this plastic. I have savagely ripped these plastics bags, furiously thrown away these plastic baskets and called them “stupidly redundant” as I emptied carrots in the vegetable compartment of my fridge. I have wished I could teleport myself to the farmer’s market Place des Lices and have a bunch of sandy carrots dropped off straight into my reusable bag.

I wonder how I can have been so arrogant as to ignore that this plastic packaging, though “perhaps not very environmentally friendly”, was carefully designed to provide me with the healthiest, tastiest carrots? Now it all becomes clear. Of course the plastic basket protected my carrots from chocks during transport. And how can I have failed to notice that the plastic bags had perfectly calibrated holes to provide my carrots with the right amount of oxygen?

Now perhaps we should all just pause for a minute and wonder what exactly was wrong with our Grandmas’ root cellars. I am absolutely sure that conducting research on vegetation stress is very interesting and fruitful from a biological point of view. But I can’t help to think that this whole carrot and plastic story has a bit of a bitter aftertaste, and that this is what happens when one demands that research imperatively yields practical applications.

As a scientist and root vegetable lover, all this makes me, in fact, a little sad.

Take care and eat well,

Marion

PS: Did you know that carrot greens make a delicious soup? Here is my recipe.


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On Spring Cleaning And Carbon Dioxide

spring cleaning

One fine day the snow is gone and it is spring. This year, its seems alarmingly early.

What I love most about living in Scandinavia is the sharp contrast between seasons. It took me a little time to adjust to the pace. Sometimes, after four years, I still get caught by surprise. I forget how fast the scenery changes every single week. Gradually, I’m learning to listen to this perpetual reminder from nature: seize the moment, now, seize the moment. It touches me so deeply. The sense of time passing. The rhythm. The cycles.

I moved to Scandinavia on a particularly snowy winter. Here I was, in the North, where I wanted to be. I felt like the luckiest person on earth. Shortly after my arrival, I traveled to the mountains to attend a two weeks winter school. When I came back, the snow was gone, and I discovered with pleasure that the yard in front of my building had a lovely little grass patch.

Once again, I had felt this lump in my throat, this being-out-of-step feeling that accompanied me to every scientific meeting I went to. This time it was mixed with guilt. I felt it wasn’t right to be feeling out of place when I was given a chance to spend two weeks listening to great lectures, in a fancy hotel were I was served excellent food and wine every day. And there was the good salary, the tax exemption, and the chance to live in a beautiful residential area right next to the campus where I was working as a research postdoc.

Every spring, dumpsters appeared in my neighborhood, neatly aligned in the parking lots. From my kitchen window I could witness an endless procession of cars with trailers filled with stuff that people busied themselves throwing into the quickly growing pile. Kids were climbing on it, playing there, occasionally pulling out a toy in perfect condition. I might sound dangerous or unhealthy, but really it wasn’t. I can assure you that there was no risk to find a rusty nail in those dumpsters. There was almost nothing in there that was fit for the bin. It was just stuff that people didn’t want anymore. I personally remember saving a beautiful and, though a bit thirsty, perfectly alive houseplant and a couple a terracotta flower pots in which I grew basil on my balcony for two years.

Even though “applications to carbon dioxide capture and sequestration” clearly appeared on my job description, I had not given it much attention. Being a physicist and not a geologist, it wasn’t directly in my area of expertise, and I didn’t know much about it. Not only did I have no particular interest in it, but I spontaneously tended to think it was a bad idea. I still do. And most importantly, I was interested in doing basic research. I didn’t care what pretext the funding agency needed to hear this time to deign giving us some money.

As soon as a dumpster got filed, it was taken away and replaced by an empty one. On dugnad day I found myself raking leaves with my neighbors, putting them in big plastic bags and throwing them in together with outgrown children bikes. I was astonished to see that the rakes went in the dumpster, too, when we had finished.

I saw my colleagues get married, get well-paid jobs, have kids, buy apartments in nice neighborhoods. I saw young couples throwing perfectly usable Ikea furniture into these dumpsters. Buy new stuff. Throw old stuff away. It seemed to be the logical, unavoidable path. Upgrading. Taking long-distance fights to conferences at the other end of the world and short distance ones for one day meetings at the other end of the country.

I was asked to attend a seminar at the funding agency. It became very clear to me that they took carbon dioxide capture and sequestration very seriously. Their argument was that “people” would not change their lifestyle quickly enough to allow carbon emissions to drop as fast as they should to limit global warming.

“People”. How ironic.

 

 
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On Lab Journals And Craft Journals

ford model T cut paper and watercolors illustration

I have a pile of red, soft cover spiral notebooks I bought at the beginning of my postdoc. The first ones became lab journals, and now I’m using the rest of the pile as scrap-, sketch-, and whatever-notes-I-need-to-take- books. I could just have grabbed notebooks in the supplies cabinet of the Physics Department, but I was rather specific about how I wanted my lab journal. I wanted spirals so I could open it full, fold it back and stack it on the corner of a lab bench, occasionaly tearing out any pages I wanted to get rid off. I wanted it to be my very own. And I really liked the red covers.

When I was first explained what a lab journal was as a young student, I felt invested of a very serious mission. The progress of Science was basically lying on my shoulders. I was responsible for writing down everything anyone would need to reproduce a successful experiment. Later I learned that writing something that would still make sense to me after a few years was a much more reasonable goal.

I secretly delighted in carefully trimming and gluing plots and tables here and there on the pages of my precious notebook, a craft I undeniably excelled in in elementary school but had been deprived of as more and more ring binders appeared in my aging student gear. I used the good old fountain pen I was carrying along in my pencil case since high school. People would be impressed. “Is this your lab journal? Whoa! It’s spotless!”.

It was. Nice and clean. No crossing-outs. But besides my beautiful handwriting, undeniable talent for page layout (and shameless use of erasable ink), I guess it also had to do with the fact that I kept trial and error stuff on additional lose pages of scrap paper. I felt that I had to keep these separate because I didn’t trust that I would be able to discriminate established facts from guesses I had made when I would come back to the notes I made a few months earlier. I guess I also naively thought that my lab journals would eventually be passed on to and used by the next student working the same experimental setup, so that I should refrain from cluttering them with my personal ramblings.

It was a bad idea, because I’m sure that to some extent, it simply prevented these ramblings to even happen, and the process of research is largely about these ramblings. So, as a postdoc I finally started allowing myself to write down everything that came to my mind with whatever pen happened to be available. I used carelessly teared tape instead of glue and crossed out whole sentences without scruples, trying to let the ramblings happen. But it quickly became clear that virtually no one had any interest in them until they could be turned into something that sounded publishable, as very often opposed, I felt, to genuinely interesting. The pitiful state of my neglected lab journal reflected my own state of mind: I felt lost, bored and frustrated.

Around the time I had made up my mind to leave academia after the end of my postdoc, we had our annual group meeting. Besides the appointment of volunteers to organize the Christmas party, “a new routine for lab journals” was on the agenda. Our university, following the popular European tendency and ensuring compliance with the nowadays popular paradigm of intellectual property, had decided to set up a strict lab journal policy that involved distributing and keeping track of calibrated, institution-owned notebooks in which we, researchers, were responsible for writing down everything we did in predefined boxes: date, title of the experiment, description of the procedure and results, signature, signature of a witness. Everything you wrote in here became the property of the university, and everything you had to write had to be written in there. If you were allowed to keep a copy of your notes when leaving the institution, the original notebook had to be handed out for archiving.

Everyone agreed that such a rigid procedure was completely disconnected from the reality of the researcher’s work. But the protests were only about the form. Some found it obsolete to have a paper journal when they were usually keeping all their notes electronically. Even the paper lovers like me unanimously found the dimensions of the book and its rigid cover very unpractical. And of course the exigence of having every single page countersigned by “a witness who understood the content” made everyone roll their eyes in exasperation.

But we didn’t talk about the intellectual property thing and its meaning for the future of fundamental research. “You know, this is how it is, now”, our group leader said. “We have to follow the new rule”.

So I was left with these extra red, soft cover spiral notebooks and now I use them to record my new creative endeavors. I’m gradually realizing that they are truly mine. I do hope I can still understand these sock-knitting instructions in a few months.

I think that applying a vision of intellectual property in which knowledge is a good with an economical value to what academic research produces is wrong for many reasons. First, any honest researcher knows that it its extremely tricky to attribute a research result to a single person, a single research group or a single institution. Second, this process slows down the diffusion of knowledge to a wide audience, who incidentally also often coincides with the tax payers who funded the research. And third, it promotes the harmful idea that research is only about results.

It reminds me of book by French writer Daniel Pennac called Comme Un Roman, an essay about reading. Pennac starts by pointing out that the verb “read”, just as “love” or “dream”, doesn’t make any sense used in the imperative form. Well, the same could be said for any creative endeavour. And in my opinion, it applies to research, too. I don’t think you get the best out of researchers by ordering them to find, find, find.

 
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On Photography And The Tragedy Of The Good Student

bokeh

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I think I’ve just realized that there was nothing morally wrong with semi-automatic camera modes. Of course, my embarrassment lies less in the realization itself than in the now blatant fact that I apparently thought there was.

For some mysterious reason, I’ve suddenly started using my camera in aperture priority mode. It could be something I ate or the effect of sun exposure on my vitamin D levels. Or, more probably, the higher than usual number of sunny days inspired me to fiddle with my camera and gave me the brilliant idea of listening to some photography podcasts. Needless to say, I’ve had a couple of aha! moments these past few weeks, and after discovering this week’s photo challenge, I had to format my prehistoric 512 MB memory card a number of times. Playing with shallow depth of field is decidedly a lot of fun.

To think that I’ve spent so much time studying physics, including optics, without ever giving photography a serious try – just for the sake of developing some intuition of what a lens does – is in itself regrettable. What is much worse is that once I actually decided to give photography a try for its own sake, I remained stuck with the idea that as long as I didn’t master the full manual mode, there was no point stopping to shoot in automatic. This is what I call the tragedy of the good student.

All the way throughout my long curriculum I’ve been what everyone agreed to call “a good student”. You might very rightly want to point out that this is nothing to complain about, and I am the first to recognize that I was clearly on the right side of the system. Being the daughter of two teachers, I was particularly well equipped, from a very young age, to understand the expectations of the educational institution. I also tend to think that my social origin placed me practically a priori in the category of students – good students – for which the said institution has a particular liking. Some like to call this “cultural reproduction”. I am one of those who think that this is probably the biggest fault of our educational system.

That said, I’m gonna play spoiled child and whine a little about the good student condition. Please bear with me.

I think that in the very way the educational system defines, selects and treats good students, it makes them a great disservice. And if my own mental block with camera modes certainly has causes that appertain to my particular psychology, I tend to think that it is also a symptom of a dysfunction of the educational institution.

I went to school and university in France in the 1990s and 2000s. Good students, like myself, were students who could cope with a large number of hours spent sitting in classrooms without being guilty of too much fidgeting or chattering. And there is really no merit here. It’s easy to sit and listen to a teacher who doesn’t look very different from your mom or dad, when you know what you are doing here – you’re here to learn, your parents told you – and when you’re lucky enough to easily understand whatever you’re being taught.

This is precisely where the problem was. Since you usually understood the lectures, and since understanding per se undeniably brings some satisfaction, you willingly accepted to be deluged with facts without noticing that you were actually never given a chance to want to know something. And in case you did, you didn’t have time anyway. You were too busy taking in one lecture after the next, dutifully doing homework, and perfecting your student file in preparation for a bright future. When it came to course choices, you were told that science would open every door – so, science it was. Who wants to discard opportunities?

While praising curiosity and sharp-mindedness, the school system actually encourages good students to keep or adopt a passive attitude towards knowledge that drains out creativity and encourages a form of submission. And while pretending to open all doors and maximizing choice, it authoritatively puts them on tracks without giving them the chance to protest.

Good students were also those who got it right the first time. It still puts me into a cold sweat to think about the optics tutorials I attended as an undergraduate physics students ten years ago. We had these express tests, which consisted in executing a classical optics calculation in ten minutes sharp. Either you got it right the first time, or you realized that you had made a mistake only to see your paper snatched out of your hands before having time to rectify it. The point was to get it right the first time. This is how you turn good students into submissive, timorous beings who become convinced that they have to know before even trying.

As a PhD student, I would often hear professors complaining about the rising disaffection of students for scientific subjects. “Even the best ones, now, turn to economics and stuff like that”. To some extent, I share this concern. In particular, I deeply regret that the opening of job prospects has to come before sheer curiosity when it comes to course choices. But looking back at my own curriculum, I think it’s also worth wondering what really happens to curiosity as students go through the school system.

It probably wouldn’t do any harm to give all students a break. To let them breathe and experiment. To let them try and fail. To give them plenty of time to really ask themselves questions. To encourage them to play with a camera before they learn optics. Why the hell should anyone want to study optics for its own sake if they’ve never been fascinated with the beauty that light can produce, after all?


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On Lecture Halls And Moments of Distraction

campus

Dear Campus Architects, Designers, And Whoever Else It May Concern,

There is a question I have long wanted — but never dared — to ask you. I have turned it over and over in my mind to make sure that no obvious answer had escaped me, but I cannot seem to come up with one. I feel a little embarrassed to ask and I certainly do not want to sound ungrateful, especially since everything indicates that you do put a lot of effort into creating ideal conditions for students and researchers to carry on their quest for knowledge. And, allow me to add, this is why I have been a great admirer of your work from my very first day on a university campus.

I remember that the absence of the letter “M” on the so-called “M-building” were I was to attend my first math seminar as a new Physics student, though it certainly caused me some embarrassment, was an eye-opener. It was amazing to realize how such a subtle design trick could encourage communication between new and experienced students. I felt incredibly lucky to have met one of the latter who was precisely on his way to the same building and who, seeing my helplessness, kindly suggested that I followed him. Sweaty, blushing and late, I entered a classroom full of strangers toying with the thrilling idea that there would come a day when I would be there to rescue younger students in distress. And indeed years later, proud as a peacock, I lead my youngest brother on a guided tour around the campus and showed him were the M-building was. A much-cherished memory.

On Thursday afternoons, my class was inflicted a particularly dull lecture. Most fortunately, it took place in a windowless lecture hall in which the scattered, discreet neon lights allowed us to plunge in a pleasant drowsiness as we digested our lunch. Even in the unlikely case in which someone would have wished to leave before the end of the class — though I personally do not see what is wrong with seating on a hardwood bench with a straight back and no space to stretch one’s legs; what are two or four hours when one is young and alert? — the escape was grandly facilitated by your clever architectural choices. First, the hugeness of the room allowed virtually everyone to seat at the end of a row, so that they could get out without having to bother other students. Second, the cozy dark carpet on the floor damped the sound of footsteps very efficiently. It might also have damped the teacher’s voice, incidentally, but as I said, the lecture was dull anyway. All this was absolutely perfect.

I can’t help remembering also how cleverly lecture halls were equipped to reconcile absent-minded scientists with energy-saving practices. Since it had become clear that no friendly note on the door would succeed in reminding us to switch the lights off before leaving, motion detectors had been installed to control the lighting. It was a brilliant idea, if I may say so. During lectures, as the teacher went back and forth in front of the blackboard and under the detector, we constantly had light. During exams, when he or she sat immobile at the desk, the light went off every fifteen minutes, which was life-saving for those of us who had been so careless as to forget their watch.

It took me a longer time to fully appreciate the ingenuity of color choices. I am ashamed to admit, for example, that I have long been convinced that the neon green paint in the bathroom of the Chemistry building had been chosen for common economical reasons – or even, I barely dare to say, bought on offer. How indelicate of me. It strikes me now that there could not have been a better color (apart from the bright orange in the Physics building) to revivify a sleepy student relieving her bladder during a much-needed coffee break in the middle of a demanding lecture. And over the years I have learned to appreciate the value of a coat of paint. When I visited a postdoc friend of mine, a while ago, I immediately appreciated how the dark brown walls of her office created an atmosphere that was obviously favorable to deep-thinking.

In short I am truly impressed by your keenness to grasp the essence of academic life, its highs and lows, its long hours of intense concentration and brief moments of distraction. I am especially touched by your deep understanding of the latter, and infinitely grateful for your indulgence. This is why I have to ask: why did you put the classroom and office windows so high that when we seat at our desks, we cannot look outside?

Respectfully yours,
Marion


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On Sewing And Having a PhD

sewing basket

One of the hardest barriers I had to overcome to leave academia and make a big life change was the incomprehension of some of the people I have always trusted and whose opinion I value.

Around this time last year, the news spread out in the family that “Marion was living her job.” Some said I was right to follow my heart. Some disapproved. And although I had been announcing my intentions for at least a year, others clung desperately to the idea that it came as a surprise.

For the record, I technically didn’t leave my job. Believe me, I would have loved to quit with great fanfare, shouting loud and clear what I couldn’t take anymore about scientific research, but I didn’t have the guts for this. The truth is that like most young academics, I was on a fixed term contract, which eventually expired. There was no possibility for an extension, which saved me from another hesitation, and I didn’t look for another academic position either because I wanted to do something else with my life.

I have never regretted this decision, not for a second. In fact, honestly, I’ve been congratulating myself every single day for taking it. I have spent a year learning and growing and along the way I have come to understand things I wish I had been aware of when I was still considering whether to stay or to leave.

I had never measured how spectacularly people filter what you say to remove anything they don’t want to hear. When I said I was unhappy, I was answered it wasn’t that bad. When I said I was suffering from contradictions between what I thought my job should be and what it actually was, I was told to be philosophical about it. When I said I only had a temporary position, people convinced themselves that there would always be another extension. When it became clear that there wouldn’t, they insisted that surely I could find another position. For one thing, it’s not that easy, but anyway, I didn’t want one. I didn’t want one. “Thank you for forwarding me this offer,” I wrote to my advisors “but at the moment I’m not looking for another postdoc”. Still, the same emails kept pouring in. “No,” I told people “I don’t want to look for a job in the oil industry”. “Yes, I understand” they said, “but then what? What? WHAT?”

Even though people had the best of intentions, these reactions had a devastating effect on me. Being faced with the involuntary but systematic denial of my problems or tentative choices made me doubt. I trusted these persons. Maybe they were right. Maybe I was wrong. But then I knew I wasn’t wrong. I knew I how felt. This perpetual contradiction was painful and paralyzing. I was unhappy and wanted a change but I was unable to think serenely about what else I could do.

I did have a bunch of ideas, but none of them seemed to be taken seriously. I remember mentioning sewing during a family meal.

“You have a PhD and you want to sew?” one of my uncles said affectionately.

“What’s wrong with sewing” I asked “it’s not a shameful activity, is it?”

He readily agreed.

Indeed, I’m sure, his question didn’t conceal any disdain for manual activities. But he meant, like others, that there are career paths to follow and that every new step must be the logical continuation from the previous one. I thought it was astonishing to see this generation think in terms of hierarchies between careers and standards for success that are set by social conventions they were once so prone to reject as outdated.

Career rules were even more overwhelming in the academic world I belonged to. Despite the well-known fact that the number of tenured academic positions is decreasing alarmingly, getting one remains the standard of success. Timing is crucial. Are you applying this year? No? No? Getting a job in industry is a very acceptable way out provided that it comes with a salary that ridicules academic standards. As a last resort, teaching is perhaps ok. But it’s the very last limit before decline.

I felt that unless one already had a lifelong calling for classical singing or something equally noble to go back to —  or for women, the “excuse of motherhood” (!) — any move out of this world was seen as an unfortunate affair of nervous breakdown. I have been trapped by this kind of conception myself for quite some time. At some point, though, I had to admit that the accumulation of disillusions simply smashed these ideas to pieces. I had enough disagreements with this system to swallow my pride without to much difficulty.

What I’ve learned from this past year was hard to accept, but liberating: often, when people ask you what you’re doing, what your plans are, or if you’re happy, they don’t really want to hear what you have to say. They already have their own very precise idea of what your happiness should be made of. They have a whole theory about what you were made for. Fundamentally, they want to hear the confirmation that you are indeed on a track, this track you’re meant to follow, working your way up.

I’m the only one in the family to have a PhD, and I will always be infinitely grateful to have been encouraged and supported all the way there. I understand that people perhaps expected me to do something that provided secure employment and decent money. But I can’t believe they ever wanted me to resign myself to doing something I don’t like or want. I’ll admit that it would save them from worrying and wondering if I will end up starving if I had a well-paid job making atom bombs or destroying rain forests to pump more oil. But it wouldn’t make me happy. And I know that all they’ve ever wanted for me was happiness.

Sometimes, people who care for you worry so much that they urge you to give way to the very social conventions they’ve taught you to criticize. It’s perfectly understandable. But I’m glad to see that I’m learning to recognize these situations, and disregard expectations that aren’t mine. Making life choices that make me happy is up to me.

This weekend, I sewed another pillow case from an old shirt. Perhaps one day I will make a batch of them to sell. I don’t know. Who knows? But it made me happy. I am happy.

pillow01-small


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On Small Talk And Big Problems In The World

coffee

Dear Former Colleagues and Random Strangers In The Cafeteria,

You might have spotted me, sometimes, having lunch on my own in a corner. You’ve probably noticed that I often remained silent while eating with you. Of course it would be easy to classify me among the introverts and forget about it. Though I’ll readily admit that I am shy, I think perhaps we would all benefit from having a closer look at the situation.

Believe me, I actually used to talk a lot. I mean, a lot. All the time. The family archives attest it. Hours of video recorded by my grandfather prove it beyond any doubt – it’s almost embarrassing. And if you still don’t believe me, my brothers can testify.

But talking is one thing, and having a satisfying conversation is another. Probably because at times I have been lonely, I have an extra obsessive need of good conversation. Good conversation truly makes me happy. In fact nothing makes me happier than debating something so passionately with someone that we both lose track of time.

When I dig into my childhood memories trying to remember when I first felt this excitement and euphoria I associate with good conversation, I keep falling back around the coffee table. I always say that I started appreciating coffee itself much later than coffee time. I must have been about twelve when I started hanging around with the adults as they had coffee after lunch. While I couldn’t understand what they found so attractive about the dark beverage, I loved this moment. We would sit with family and friends, munching pieces of chocolate and putting the world to rights. The conversation was lively, we raised our voices, argued and disagreed – I thrived.

I have long thought that all conversations should be like that. I admit that I have been naive and arrogant. It probably has something to do with my socializing with philosophers and other social science freaks. You see, learning about things like theses and arguments really blew my mind. It opened a whole world for me outside of physics, and got me so excited I’m still trying to calm down.

But clearly, there is one skill I don’t have: I’m unable to produce small talk. I’m truly sorry if awkward silences made you feel uncomfortable. I just didn’t know what to say when I bumped into you at the coffee machine. Sometimes I preferred shutting up than hearing myself talking about the weather. I can assure you that I’ve been, and still am, working hard on it.

Despite my best efforts, sentences such as “let’s not talk about politics” still come to me every time as a slap in the face. I realize just how selfish and arrogant this can sound, but what I hate about small talk is that every time the conversation comes to something I’m excited to discuss, someone has to abruptly change the subject. I understand that the intent is to keep everyone comfortable, but these about-faces always hit me like a ton of brick. It’s like saying to me: “No. You won’t be happy.”

Yet thanks to you I have come to understand that in some situations, small talk is just appropriate, and I’ve learned to swallow my disappointment. I am truly grateful to you for showing me the value of smooth, pleasant social relations at work.

But then of course one cannot make big problems disappear by not talking about them. And somehow, political matters kept popping up in casual conversations. This mix-up drove me mad. Some problems just cannot stay in the realm of small talk, or we’re condemned to successions of snap judgments, clichés, and erroneous information. I remember some disappointing discussions we had about the situation in Greece last year. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean we should agree. I just mean that some statements call for arguments. As physicists, you know how to approach difficult scientific problems with caution and rigor. I’m a bit mad at you for not showing the same rigor when it comes to problems about the human world.

I’m sure you’ve heard the news about the elections in Greece. Perhaps you discussed this again briefly. To be honest, I’m relieved I wasn’t there. This way you savored your lunch without being inflicted my disapproving frown, and I savored the news.

No hard feelings.
Love,
Marion


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On Library Cards and Things That Really Matter

library-books

Last Saturday, we came home from a drive to the nearest city with a pile of library books. Along with a bottle of white wine, an improvised but delicious orange cake, cozy pillows on the couch and a good fire in the wood stove, they were a perfect for a gray January weekend.

But they were actually more than that. They were a way to celebrate the arrival in the mail of our so-called id-numbers earlier that week. Whoopee! There are tons of things to sort out now that these precious digits are here, opening the door to endless administrative joys, but somehow the first thing we actually did was to go and get ourselves a library card each.

When I think about it, it was a pretty nice way of thumbing our noses at administrative loopholes and reaffirming what really matters. Reading matters, for example.

As an academic researcher, I used to spend quite some time reading papers and textbooks. It was part of my job, and therefore I was even paid to do so. This, in turn, entitled be to move to a new country quite easily. Strangely enough, when I decided that I’d be happier and more useful spending an equally significant part of my time reading piles of library books covering a broad range of important subjects, from philosophy of science to writer’s biographies, local history, renovating houses and growing vegetables (among other things), it went a little less smoothly.

Finally, things are falling into place. We don’t live (yet!) in a world in which doing something useful is sufficient to be able to blossom in peace, but we fixed up our own little space in which we’re hoping to make a living doing things we’re interested in. A tiny red house, a little studio of our own, and library cards. Plus 10 precious digits that mean we can start for good.

On Being Creative And Putting More Wood On The Fire

window

Earlier this month we came back from Southern France to find our water pipes intact despite a week of bitter cold temperatures. I would be lying if I said that the issue of frozen pipes didn’t worry me a little while we were away, but as I now know, our electric heaters, set to the minimum, actually can do the job of keeping the plumbing frost-free. So next time, I’ll be absolutely serene.

When we decided to buy our little red house, we knew that spending our days working from home in the heart of Scandinavian winter relying on electric heaters only was out of the question. As we pondered the different wood stove options, our friends strongly recommended going for a programmable pellet stove. “It’s very convenient”, they insisted, “because you can tune it so that the house is warm when you get home, and not worry about it.”

It is indeed. Yet at the time we were less concerned by tunable thermostats than by finding a stove we could cook on. In such a climate, we argued, that would be a serious asset in the event of a power shortage. The argument was granted.

In reality, we were looking beyond these exceptional cases. We actually planned to cook on our wood stove on a daily basis, at least during the months when heating was needed in the house. I understand that coming from people like us, who’d always been living in cities, heating their apartments with electric heaters and cooking on electric stoves, the idea can have sounded like another crazy let’s-go-live-into-the-woods nonsenses.

Our friends, who’d made the big city-woods move before us, were more concerned about time management. Living frugally, they said, shouldn’t be taking all your time, and making green choices should not impinge upon creativity. “How will you manage to get things done”, they asked, “if, every hour, you have to put more wood on the fire?”

As someone who’s very attached to the idea of making room for thought, creativity or introspection in everyone’s schedule, I do get the point. But, just as I wrote in my post about cooking dried beans, I think we shouldn’t systematically take for granted the idea that freedom and creativity are always to be found in technologies and social structures that supposedly liberate us from the trivial necessities of domestic chores, the latter being the source of all slavery and alienation.

Of course I’ll willingly admit that when you get up early every day, drive to your job in the dark, spend the day with your annoying colleagues before driving back home in the dark, adding to this snow-shoveling, windshield-defrosting, grocery-bags-carrying-on-icy-parking-lots and other Scandinavian winter delights, you do need a warm house to get home to. Period. No going back and forth to the wood pile and waiting to the stove to heat up. I get that.

That is actually my point. For most of us, “liberating technologies” are not magic. They come with a cost: the financial dependence on a nine-to-five job. It was also the case for me. So last year, when my contract at the university ended, I decided that instead of looking for another unfulfilling (for me) academic job, and being unhappy, I’d rather spend time living frugally while figuring things out.

Spending a chilly but happy spring in our friends’ summerhouse, in which the old wood stove served both as heater, cooker, and water boiler – a versatility whose merits struck me as pretty obvious – gave me time to find a new routine, doing things I find more meaningful and setting up my own little business.

Now I’m working from home, by the wood stove. It turns out that a programmable pellet stove was way out of our budget. So, we went for a classic cast-iron one. So far, remembering the gloom of coming home to apartments lacking a fireplace after spending Christmas at my parents’, having to put wood on the fire every hour or so still feels much more like a luxury than like a burden.

Sure, when I’m not there, my house is cold. It is also cold when I get up in the morning. But then I have time to seat and read by the stove while the room heats up, gathering inspiration for the day’s work while the water is boiling for tea. And I really, really like it so.