Some Things

Red House In The Snow

Something our neighbors taught us: when nature gives you free insulation, pile it against the walls of your house.

Something critical about academia, made poetic. Found through matters mathematical, and very much agreed upon.

Something that got me thinking: “create to share” vs “share what you create”. Eileen’s blog is full of inspiring posts about illustration. I also enjoyed that one, for example.

Something animated,

and something from photographers I enjoy following: moments in black and white before morning coffee and after a short swim.

Have a cozy weekend.


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Love, Emma and the h-index

I love you more than your h-index || watercolor lettering || bymarion
After some failed attempts to come up with a satisfying greeting card design with watercolor calligraphy, I decided to give it up and go for a cut paper design instead.

Cards have been made and mailed and now I am back to my watercolor lettering experiments. I ditched the calligraphy nibs and switched to good old brushes and extra nice watercolor paper. I’m hoping to produce a couple of these “I love you more than your h-index” paintings to add to my shop in time for Valentine’s day.

I’m quite happy with the result so far, though it’s a very, very long, tedious process. I’m always wondering to what extent my using the wrong tools makes things take way more time than they should. But at least while I’m at it, I’m listening to an audiobook version of Jane Austen’s Emma, and laughing quite a lot. This makes for a good contrast with the actual h-index thing, the stupidity of which is more prone to making me want to cry!


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On My Desk

handlettering_draft

Academic Greetings - A Set of 5 Cards by Alpha Angle

publish_a_paper

I have sent my family and friends a ridiculous amount of handmade cards over the years: they patiently followed my experiments with various styles and materials. There were scrapbooking-like cards, cut paper cards, painted cards, minimalist cards, maximalist cards. Cardboard, magazine cuttings, egg cartons, whatever. You name it!

They often joked that if I didn’t pursue physics as a carrier, I could always make cards instead. Well, here we go! Of course, one cannot leave academia without after-effects: so, these are academic greetings!

I started with a quick hand-lettered sketch, and used it as a guide to draw all the letters digitally in Inkscape.

Now that these are done, I am hoping for a few weeks with less screen time. I came back from my recent trip with a pile of old jeans to recycle, so I guess there will be more of these pouches soon.

denim_pouch

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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