postdoc dinner

One day later, recovering from more food. You’d think all we do in this business is eat. This time it was farewell to Barcelona, a first-rate tapas/wine bar downtown. Various forms of goat cheese, roasted garlic, and a nice spicy Rioja were consumed. And the desserts! Get the flan if you go there.

The company was different in character also — this time it was good-bye to the postdocs, so as the wine flowed there was more than a little discussion of concerns more personal than might be aired in the company of anyone with tenure. It’s good to bring our attention back down to earth sometimes: scientists are people much like non-scientists, perhaps with different talents but with many of the same hopes and fears, flaws and virtues. In our line of work, we labor as much, or more, with others as we do alone, so we encounter as many sociological problems as technical ones. Far from being mere mathematical prodigies or whizzes with soldering irons or C++ compilers, there’s a lot of social and emotional intelligence that goes into being a successful scientist: knowing how to stand up for yourself, how to negotiate your own interests with others, how to manage your supervisor tactfully and effectively, how to motivate your students; how to bring the best out in others. Earlier in my career I feel I often discounted social skills in favor of brainpower and more than a little hauteur, sure that my technical competence would bring me to the top — and more than a little afraid that social interactions were simply intractable compared to elliptic integrals; you could always simply look up the latter. A forgivable oversight, and I don’t think I was alone at the time in feeling this way. Now, however, such questions fascinate me in ways I never could have predicted earlier on.

We touched on a lot of things I really should discuss in more detail in the future: the difficulties associated with the “two-body problem” of romantic relationships between academics; the differences in culture between particle physics and astronomy; knowing, in the absence of a faculty job offer, when one’s had enough of postdocs and needs to move on to something else. We very nearly moved on to another bar for cocktails, but at the end, after more than three well-spent hours at the table, everyone sort of agreed it was time to hit the sack.

I’ll touch on weightier matters in more detail when I haven’t been drinking as much. Which will probably not be this week!

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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