We’re Weird

Preparing to move to Denmark, it strikes me just how strange what I’m doing would seem to most people. I’m moving across the ocean to a place where I don’t know the language. (Or at least, don’t know more than half a duolingo lesson.) I’m doing this just three years after another international move. And while I’m definitely nervous, this isn’t the big life changing shift it would be for many people. It’s just how academic careers are expected to work.

At borders, I’m often asked why I am where I am. Why be an American working in Canada? Why move to Denmark? And in general, the answer is just that it’s where I need to be to do what I want to do, because it’s where the other people who do what I want to do are. A few people seed this process by managing to find faculty jobs in their home countries, and others sort themselves out by their interests. In the end, we end up with places like Perimeter, an institute in the middle of Canada with barely any Canadians.

This is more pronounced for smaller fields than for larger ones. A chemist or biologist might just manage to have their whole career in the same state of the US, or the same country in Europe. For a theoretical physicist, this is much less likely. I also suspect it’s more true of more “universal” fields: that most professors of Portuguese literature are in Portugal or Brazil, for example.

For theoretical physics, the result is an essentially random mix of people around the world. This works, in part, because essentially everyone does science in English. Occasionally, a group of collaborators happens to speak the same non-English language, so you sometimes hear people talking science in Russian or Spanish or French. But even then there are times people will default to English anyway, because they’re used to it. We publish in English, we chat in English. And as a result, wherever we end up we can at least talk to our colleagues, even if the surrounding world is trickier.

Communities this international, with four different accents in every conversation, are rare, and I occasionally forget that. Before grad school, the closest I came to this was on the internet. On Dungeons and Dragons forums, much like in academia, everyone was drawn together by shared interests and expertise. We had Australians logging on in the middle of everyone else’s night to argue with the Germans, and Brazilians pointing out how the game’s errata was implemented differently in Portuguese.

It’s fun to be in that sort of community in the real world. There’s always something to learn from each other, even on completely mundane topics. Lunch often turns into a discussion of different countries’ cuisines. As someone who became an academic because I enjoy learning, it’s great to have the wheels constantly spinning like that. I should remember, though, that most of the world doesn’t live like this: we’re currently a pretty weird bunch.

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7 thoughts on “We’re Weird

  1. Lubos Motl

    OK, for theoretical physicists, nations are often too small but generally, I do think that it is “anomalous” to move to different countries – for years – many times in one’s life.

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  2. telescoper

    I’m actually in Copenhagen right now, visiting the Niels Bohr Institute. I’ve visited Denmark every summer for about thirty years and love the place. I’m sure you’ll settle in quickly.

    I had the chance to move here many years ago, but turned it down. One of the few decisions in my life that I regret.

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  3. Wyrd Smythe

    Enjoy Denmark! I understand it’s beautiful.

    I’m vaguely surprised that theoretical physicists need to be physically anywhere as opposed to collaborating online. After all, the interweb was invented for sharing between physicists! 😀

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      It’s better for experimentalists sharing data than theorists sharing ideas in real-time, though the latter might be improved by a decent online chalkboard.

      Also, grant agencies tend to frown on paying postdocs at other peoples’ institutions most of the time. 😉

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