I’m joining the APS FECS Executive Committee!

I’m thrilled to announce that I have been elected to serve as a “Member-at-Large” on the Executive Committee of the APS Forum for Early Career Scientists (FECS).

Established just three years ago, FECS is is dedicated to helping APS meet the unique needs of early career scientists (i.e. postdocs). Early career scientists face a number of unique challenges. They often move great distances, isolating themselves from their support networks. They have neither the protection of tenure nor the comradeship of classmates, and they often occupy temporary positions with low pay, meager benefits, and few labor protections. They must balance the pressure to publish with the constant search for their next position. All of these factors put them at an elevated risk for exploitation and harassment, the worst of which often falls upon women and minorities.

I am looking forward to working to make life better for early career scientists like myself. I want to focus especially on the problems faced by underrepresented minorities as well as mental health. In addition to my own ideas, I want to hear from you, my friends and colleagues, about issues that are facing early career scientists and ideas for how FECS might be able to address them. Please contact me or comment below with your thoughts and suggestions.

If you’re an APS member who is interested in joining FECS, you can do so for free by logging into your account on aps.org. You can also join the FECS Facebook group, even if you’re not an APS member.

Back-to-Back conferences: Taiwan Physical Society

Last week I was back in Hsinchu for the three-day Annual Meeting of the Taiwan Physical Society.

This conference was very local: only about 10% of the participants were from abroad (I’m uncertain if that figure includes people like me). They were nonetheless able to get some pretty good invited speakers including my PhD supervisor, Anders Sandvik, and Nobel Laureate and former US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. I was honored to shake Secretary Chu’s hand at the banquet (unfortunately, there is no selfie).

I gave a talk based on thermodynamics of deconfined spinons in a magnetic field, the same topic as my poster from the ICAM-NCTS.

I had great conversations with Taiwanese physicists, including some new potential collaborators. I was also able to catch up with my PhD supervisor, Anders Sandvik to discuss some aspects of the modifications I am making to my QMC code in order to measure off-diagonal imaginary-time correlations.

As a bonus, while walking from my hotel to the conference I stumbled upon the NTHU Research Reactor. I’ve always wanted to see the inside of a nuclear reactor, but I never managed to get a tour of the MIT research reactor (despite living only blocks away from it in Cambridge, MA). Hopefully I can get a tour of this one.

Me in front of the NTHU reactor building.
Photo of Nanyuan garden

ICAM-NCTS Workshop

Last week I attended the NCTS-ICAM Annual Meeting and Workshop at National Tsing-Hua University (清華大學) in Hsinchu (新竹), Taiwan. It was a delightful week of presentations and discussions with condensed matter physicists from all over the world and an excellent opportunity to build my professional network here in Taiwan. 

I presented my poster “Direct numerical observation of Bose-Einstein condensation of deconfined spinons” in which I use a magnetic field to induce a finite density of magnetic excitations at a deconfined quantum critical point and use thermodynamics to show that they must be deconfined spinons (an extension of Ch. 4 of my dissertation). I received some excellent feedback on my poster that will help improve my manuscript. 

There were fascinating talks including David Campbell, Duncan Haldane, Nic Shannon and Suchitra Sebastian. ICAM also made the wise decision to include a panel discussion on women in physics as part of the main schedule (rather than in a parallel session or as an extra event). It was a great opportunity to hear from women physicists about the challenges they face and to get some updated data from Laura Greene (former president of APS). 

Part of the conference was an excursion to 南圓 (Nanyuan), a beautiful resort in the foggy mountains near Hsinchu. We had a tour of the beautiful Chinese garden and partook in a tea ceremony.

Outreach: The World in Your Classroom

Science is a powerful way of learning how our world works, but that knowledge is useless if ordinary people don’t trust scientists. This lack of trust is at the core of issues like climate change denial and the anti-vaccination movement. Scientific literacy is a huge and complex problem, but I think one cause of this mistrust is how few people know a scientist personally (in fact, one study found that only 4% of Americans could name a living scientist). People tend to trust people they know, so with that in mind I’ve decided to get more involved in science outreach.

I have now visited two local junior high school classrooms through The World in Your Classroom, a program that brings foreigners living in Taiwan into classrooms to meet with Taiwanese students and tell them about their home countries. I’ll describe one of those experiences now.

Photo of Adam presenting his slides in the middle school classroom.

For the first thirty minutes or so I showed the students some slides talking about where I grew up and how I ended up in Taiwan. In advance, their teacher had sent me a list of questions from the students. They certainly knew a lot more about America than I knew about any foreign country when I was their age, and they weren’t afraid to ask the hard questions. Examples were “Do you support the US maintaining good relations with China?”, “Who did you vote for in the last presidential election?” and “What is your opinion on racism and same-sex marriage?”. Many of their questions asked whether America was friendly to immigrants, to which I said yes. (I imagine news coverage of current events might have inspired those questions). I did not talk extensively about my research, but I did talk about what it’s like to be a scientist and why I like my job. I especially wanted to address the misconception that scientists are all supergeniuses, so I made sure to point out that I was a very poor student when I was their age and I struggled quite a lot in school. They responded really well to this message.

For my trouble I was given a few small gifts, including a box of the best pineapple cakes I’ve had so far (I really need to figure out where those came from). I’m looking forward to meeting more Taiwanese students in the future.

TWIYC website

Cover of the book "Rest"

Book Review: “Rest” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Rest
by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

A few months ago I had the pleasure of reading “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. The core thesis of the book is that there is a limited amount of focused creative work that one can do each day, and that rest is an integral part of creative work. The book is a delight to read and (unlike many books in this genre) not overly long.

To prove his thesis, Pang relies on a combination of scientific studies relating rest and productivity as well as a collection of case studies of famous creative people including writers and scientists. As a scientist, I really appreciate that Pang correctly identifies scientific research as a fundamentally creative task, and seems especially fond of famous physicists.

The “resting” brain is not inactive. During rest the subconscious mind continues processing the ideas that the conscious mind was thinking about, but it does it in a different, freer way. This explains the often-reported phenomenon of getting your best ideas while you’re in the shower, or while out on a walk. Working more hours isn’t a guarantee of accomplishing more:

A survey of scientists’ working lives conducted in the early 1950s … graphed the number of hours faculty spent in the office against the number of articles they produced. … The data revealed an M-shaped curve. The curve rose steeply at first and peaked at between ten to twenty hours per week. The curve then turned downward. Scientists who spent twenty-five hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working thirty-five hours a week were half as productive as their twenty-hours-a-week colleagues. From there, the curve rose again, but more modestly.

Across disciplines from science to writing to music, the limit for focused creative work seems to be 4-5 hours per day. A study of violin students at the Berlin Conservatory found that the best students weren’t those who practiced the most.

“Deliberate practice is an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day.” Practice too little and you never become world-class. Practice too much, though, and you increase the odds of being struck down by injury, draining yourself mentally, or burning out. To succeed, students must “avoid exhaustion” and “limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

Pang also discusses the roles different kinds of breaks—detachment, deep play, sabbaticals—play in enhancing creativity. It’s worth noting that rest in this view need not be passive.

I’ve taken Pang’s message to heart and the results of my small uncontrolled study confirm his thesis. Over the past few months I have tried to make more time for rest. That has taken many forms. During the work day I make sure to take breaks for my mind to wander. Just a few minutes at a time, but it seems to help. I have also cut back on podcasts so I have more time with my thoughts. On the weekends, I find long bike rides very refreshing as a rare time where I am free from electronic distractions. As a result, I now feel more focused and present with the tasks that I am doing. I am spending a bit less time in the office, but I am getting much more science done.

2nd Annual Asia Pacific Workshop on Quantum Magnetism at ICTS

I present my poster. 

I’m back from almost two weeks of discussions on quantum magnetism at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS, a branch of TIFR). I presented a poster on my latest findings on my study of the field-induced spinons at the deconfined quantum critical point and received some useful feedback that will help me put the finishing touches on the manuscript.

In addition to some great tutorials and research talks, I had some productive discussions with old collaborators, like Kedar Damle, and a chance to meet a number of new people in my field and talk physics. It was a really productive 8 days and I am now back in Taipei with renewed focus.

I couldn’t have nicer things to say about ICTS. Located an hour drive outside of Bengaluru, India, ICTS is essentially a little resort for physicists. Bengaluru is apparently blessed with perfect weather year-round, and ICTS makes the most of that weather with open-air courtyards and hallways. The campus is beautiful, modern, immaculately clean, and meticulously landscaped. The guest house was basically a hotel, and the cafeteria serves up delicious Indian cuisine.  My thanks to the organizers (Subhro Bhattacharjee, Gang Chen, Zenji Hiroi, Ying-Jer Kao, SungBin Lee, Arnab Sen and Nic Shannon) as well as the ICTS staff who did such an excellent job with all the logistics. I hope to be back again for another workshop soon.