Archive for the ‘Inconsequential blabber’ Category

Yesterday was the first day of the fall quarter for about 35 000 students at UCLA. And I thought the campus was impressive before. It is now… intimidating, with all these new guys around. Looks like a Parisian metro with a crowd wearing flip-flops and sunglasses. Chatting with a student today, I realised that many of the first-year have no clue about the type of studies they want to do. If you are in this case, here, this post is for you.

I am sure pretty much anything is interesting to study, from arts to sports and history, to economics and to science. But studying is – unfortunately – not an end per se. You need to get knowledge to get a job. And you wouldn’t want to end up in a looser job like banker or lawyer. I mean, a job in which you realise at the end of your life that, although you’ve made big money allowing you to wear a Rolex (that will only impress other bankers and lawyers), the purpose and meaning is essentially artificial and inexistent. (wink to my few friends in these branches; for the others, well sue me!).

You could study art, sport, history or economics, but of course it is much less rewarding than science. And in science, let’s face it, you don’t want to become a friend of Sheldon Cooper, so you can rule out physics. All the other disciplines are obviously rather useless. What would you do with maths, now that there are calculators on Iphones? What would you do with chemistry, apart from  polluting our environment and our bodies? What would you do with medicine, apart from repairing the mistakes of the chemists? Nah, really, the only option that makes sense is the study of the functioning of our planet and of the beautiful, unfathomed depths of biodiversity: ecology.

Ok, perhaps I’m hinging a bit too much towards the ironic side, but if you think about it, it does kind of make sense. We need ecology more than ever. And not only because of the dire challenges that humanity faces in its damaged environment. Just because we still know too little about where we live. Let’s take Panthera leo, the lion. The king of animals. The iconic, charismatic species that is on every logo, blazon, story and cartoon all over the world. Do you know what we know about lions? Not much. We don’t even know how many lions there are on Earth! We know how many stars are in our galaxy, we know how many neurons are in our brains, we know how many consumers will buy any new product before they do. But the best specialists simply don’t have enough data to know how many lions there are. Needless to say we know little about all the other species, apart from a few. Hell, we don’t even know how many species there are on Earth! Not by an order of magnitude!

So, we really could use a hand (and a brain) there. Come do some ecology, String Theory can wait…



Click on the image to view the clip; you know the drill!

Another thing I’ve been told never to do is mixing personal life and professional blog. That’s another thing I’m not going to listen to, because I don’t like to follow rules, and because it’s difficult for me to disentangle personal and professional life. As a science researcher, my research is my life, my colleagues are my friends, and the values and qualities that I seek in my work, I use them to progress in running. Tenacity, strength of will, pugnacity, focus, patience, endurance, mental toughness, resilience, hard work, ambition, …

So I’ve started running 6 months ago. It took me like a urge to pee, and hasn’t quit me since. This week-end, I’ve completed my fourth semi-marathon and registered for my first marathon. I run several times a week, a minimum of 10 km each time, whether it’s hot, it’s raining, I’m tired or I’m in pain. My family and friends have been surprised, and it’s been difficult to explain, when they see me aching, or panting, or simply too exhausted to talk or move after a race.
So I’ve made this short clip, from bits found on the Internet, hoping some images will convey part of the message. Feel free to comment and share. And to try running. You’ll see, it feels good!

Of course we researchers complain a lot about the many downsides of our academic life. It is true it is a stressful job, that we all work like hell, late at night, often during the week-ends, that we take few holidays and that we don’t even get the high salaries our level of studies would entitle us to in private companies, nor the even the appreciation of the society to compensate for our all-too-often sacrificed personal lives.

True enough. But as I write these few lines in transit in Tokyo, about to meet four members (or ex-) of our research group for a mightily interesting congress in Australia, while most of the rest of the team is at another meeting in Hawaii, I have to ponder these gloomy thoughts, don’t you think?

Don’t get me wrong, these congresses, however exotic, are no real vacation. As I write this, I haven’t slept in 32 hours, and I probably won’t get much sleep in the next 36 hours either. And very probably I’ll come back a wreck, exhausted by 5 days of scientific interactions in a marvellous foreign city I won’t get to visit, and by the 40+ hours trip back that will be followed straight away by my normal (ie hellish) week of work.

Yet, being a researcher means a lot of positive things, starting with total freedom (at least in my country and institute). I repeat: TOTAL FREEDOM. I can work on whatever I want, however I want, whenever I want, with whomever I want. I get paid to answer my own questions, to learn interesting things all my life, to meet brilliant colleagues. And yes, to travel the world. I don’t have to wear a costume to work, to bow to a dictatorial boss, to worry about being late or similar puny things. The sacrifices that I do, I do them willingly, and they are amply compensated by the satisfaction I take from my work and my interactions with my colleagues.

Freedom is arguably the foremost thing humanity seeks throughout the world. It is also perhaps the most important feature of research, and the most appreciated aspect of my profession. I forbid you to say otherwise.


My personnal vision of hell



As my growing age is inexorably bringing me closer to my death, I think increasingly often about my youth. My joyful youth; and how much better life was than it is now. I also think with sorrow about the people who live now, in such an impoverished world. Think of it: when I was young, the world was so green, and blue, and colourful, and full with odours and insect noises and bird songs. The world was so alive!

There were still at this time enormous beasts roaming wild savannahs and dense forests: bears, lions, tigers, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, bison, gorillas! Imagine! The oceans were full with life, gigantic whales, agile dolphins and terrifying sharks. Orcas, rorquals, narwhals, porpoise, giant turtles, and probably many other species that when extinct before we even discovered them.

When I was young, the air was a delight to breath, with no odours, or only sweet and fragrant ones. No breather needed, even when exhausted or sick, which we rarely were. Not only the air was pure and fresh, the water too. And it was plentiful, and free for all! When I was young, we had so much water and so little regard for it that we took pleasure from soaking in it, for no other purpose than just being immersed. People used so much water. They played in articifial, gigantic pools, they watered their lawn, they washed the pavements of their cities! Everyday! Kids now don’t believe me. That would make us nauseous nowadays.

I am talking of a time before the Water Wars. Before the Climate Diasporas, before the Great Hungers and the ramping diseases that devastated humanity. I am talking of a time before the Eco-Laws, those authoritarian regulations that send to legal death anyone that kills a plant, waste water or do anything against the dying environment, things that your fathers did so plentifully, so shamelessly and so stupidly.

I am talking about a time when there was still time to care, but nobody cared, or so few. When greed moved half and apathy paralyzed the other half, and all went doomed without realising, without listening to the alarm cries, killing the last large beasts and giant trees for profit, even when they knew they were condemning their children. I am talking about a time that was happy nonetheless. Especially compared to now.

Students of today… not only students, the young in general! Pfff… when I was young…

Take these two quotes, by famous people:

What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?


I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”

This seems very fitting to our times, right? The first quote is attributed to Plato, 4th century BC, while the second is attributed to Hesiod, 8th century B.C. There are similar quotes dating from a papyrus of pharaonic Egypt of 3000 BC, or on a Babylonian clay tablet even older. If this shows a thing, it’s that “mature” generations always tend to see the replacing ones as worst than their own.

I cannot recall the number of times I’ve heard that students now were really bad at this or that, and that the general level of knowledge and competence had really decreased a lot. That in our generation students were stronger in science, more dedicated, more autonomous, working harder, …

The truth is, previous generations of students have probably never known the current level of competitiveness and difficulty to get an academic position. As a result, most students now know very early on a lot on stats, how to program in R, how to write papers, how to present their results orally or analyse and criticise a scientific paper.

I’ve supervised perhaps over 75 students by now and few were bad. In fact, most were better skilled and more knowledgeable than I was at the same study level. My seven PhD students were all brilliant, and some were even stunningly bright and competent. I wouldn’t want to compete now for a job with this generation. Very few of us would.

This is a very nice thought: the science of tomorrow will be in good hands.

Especially with our generation as mentors (because without our wisdom, these little ungrateful pricks would do nothing good).



It may come as a surprise to some, but it is completely by coincidence that I ended up working a few years in a row with several very pretty female students. And three to five pretty women together seldom go unnoticed, whether in a lab or in a conference. So after a few years, some had apparently decided that it might not have been entirely accidental.

Funnily enough, I’ve also had a few quite handsome male students during these years, but I’ve never had a single remark about that (apart from the women in my group, who where always rather quick to notice that).

Of course, I could have been offended by the insinuation that I select my students on criteria as irrelevant as beauty or charisma. You can imagine that it wouldn’t be a wise choice to succeed in research anyway. But if I was irritated, it was for my students. Because it implied that they were not here for their intellectual capacities and research skills, but because they had pretty smiles. And if they are going to be judged during their entire professional life by their peers (that’s how it works folks, there’s no job under as much peer scrutiny and criticism as researchers), it’s not fair that people start to think they are less competent and got their position because of their looks.

This shows two things. First, there are still strong biases in science, despite what we would all wish. We still do not treat men and women equally. Physical appearance is more easily noticed in a female student than in a male student. Second, we tend to think that very pretty women a priori can’t be brilliant as well. Look deeply into yourself, and you’ll see that even you can be victim to these preconceptions. That may seem a frivolous topic, but in this era of ultra competitiveness for research positions, imagine when an entire jury doesn’t even wait for you to start your presentation before cataloging you as “can’t be that bright” just because you’re stunning.

The message of this post is for professors, juries, referees and all other colleagues in position to provide assessments to be extra careful not to judge too quickly a pretty female student as possibly less intelligent or able than any other student. I know that may be paradoxical, but that happens often. For female students I have two specific messages. First, if you are really pretty, know it won’t be neutral on your carrier; it may come handy to be agreeable, but realize that people will have as many preconceptions about your mind or personality as they will, unfortunately, with ugly people. Second, it you are really, really pretty, then contact me, I may have a job for you…


Carl Sagan said once (well, perhaps he said it twice, but the second times it’s clearly less impressive):

   “In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,” and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

Well, I have nothing against politics and religion, but that’s quite true. Wait, I do have something against politics and religion. They are supposed to do the good for people (and actually some really do) but for most of their professionals, they are manipulative hypocrites.

Any way, yeah for Carl Sagan, and yeah for scientists, who can admit they are wrong – and sometime that they have been wrong for a long time – without blushing. Actually, that even feels quite good, to realise that you were wrong and that you have been set right. It feels like you have learned something, and made progress. And that you are wise enough to recognize your mistakes and mature enough to admit them and to move forward.

Am I right or am I right?


Ah my friends, astrophysics. Even if it lacks the complexity of ecology, it is still a cool science. Kinda. In fact, the cosmos has several similarities with Nature (and with my ex), in particular, they are impressively beautiful and implacably deadly.

Did you know that there are hundreds of billion stars in our galaxy alone? And that there are hundreds of billion galaxies in the observable universe? Vertiginous. That reminds me of Fermi’s “where is everybody?”. Anyway, the point of this post was to point out to a very nice collection of photos put online by NASA, here.

So next times you science policy deciders vote for big budgets for physicists, look what they do at work. They take pretty picture. We can do that too!


No post for today. Too tired and still loading…