Thursday, October 30, 2014

And now for something completely different

Earlier this year I took part in a stand up comedy event at CERN. I knew one of the people who arranged it last year and tentatively put my name forward. A few months later I had to confirm my interest in the act and somewhat nervously decided to go ahead with it. I like to paint myself into corners like this, it focuses the mind. I wrote a set and after some help slashing the worst jokes I was left with fifteen minutes of presentable material. On the evening I got on stage, performed the act, got many laughs and a few rounds of applause. It felt great and I am very glad I put my neck out to do what is often considered one of the most challenging acts to perform.

The amateaur lineup before the show.

The main reason I was glad was not because it was fun, or because of the great people I met, or because I helped the outreach efforts of CERN, or because of the support of my friends (although I am glad about all these things as well) but because it was something completely new that challenged me in ways I'd never thought about before. I was given a brief that went something like "Create a fifteen minute set related to physics or CERN for an audience of people who are mostly non-scientists, who do not speak English as a first language." That brief was simultaneously constraining and liberating. There was a huge scope for creativity in terms of content, style, behaviour, and delivery. At the same time having to craft each joke to fit in with the thematic and language constraints stretched my vocabulary. For example, I couldn't say "vial of poison" when discussing Schrödinger's cat, it had to be a "bottle of poison", and I couldn't use the word "mantlepiece" at all. None of my jokes could rely on speaking quickly or using British idioms. Even referring to simple scientific concepts reqired explanations. Perhaps the most difficult part was seeing the act from the point of view of the audience, and realising that their collective sense of humour was not the same as mine. They didn't know where the jokes were heading, and I did, so I would have to lead them very deliberately from one joke to another, including a few callbacks.

One of the organisers took this photo in rehearsal. It looks as though I'm talking about something dynamic and insightful instead of joking about cats.

All these challenges exercised skills I hadn't really used before and the experience was exhilerating. To realise you can take on something so alien and succeed is a huge achievement. Even better, it improved my general communication and public speaking skills, which is very marketable when looking for new jobs. It was an opportunity to step outside of the world academia and research, which values thoroughness, discourse and precision, to stand up comedy, which values storytelling, empathy, and a certain amount of ambiguity. In an act it's not acceptable to stumble or be corrected, whereas in an academic discussion if nobody questions what you say then you are either irrelevant or not communicating clearly enough. In addition to that the presentation of the message matters almost as much as the message itself, which is the complete antithesis of academic discourse. (One of my friends told me that with the correct timing and delivery the audience will laugh no matter what you say, which is true to an extent.)

My friends came out in force and after the event they started the after party.

Once the show was over I was of course very happy with what I had done, but I wasn't sure what would come of it. It turns out that I didn't merely perform a set, I met many new people who would encourage me to explore comedy further. In my next trip to the UK I made a point to visit the Edinburgh Festival with one of the event talents, Chella. Next week I intend to meet some more talent, Helen, for another project that could open up a few more exciting projects. In between I've met with all the organisers of the event and it's helped to change the way I think about how we communicate with the public, and the importance of getting the message right. Whatever the next decades bring this experience will help to shape the way I approach my work and add some new edge to my communication skills which should serve my career well. Being challenged is good, being creative is good, novelty is good, and getting outside one's comfort zone is great. If it's possible to entertain people along the way then all the better.

We all take to the stage for a final bow.

You can view the event in its entirety with the following link. My set starts around 30:00. Webcast archive of Comedy Collider 2014

(All photos © CERN:, or @AlexBrovvn.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A handful of perspectives

Over the past few months I've spoken to quite a few people about leaving the field. (One of the first questions many people often ask is "Have you found a new job yet? What are you going to do?" which is premature and I think is missing the point.) A few perspectives have stuck with me, and while I'm not sure I can make a full blog post about each, I can certainly combine them into a single post.

One of my former physicist friends told me about how she'd moved onto jobs more closely related to technology and finance. She's with the people she cares about and she seems happier and more driven than when I knew her as a PhD student, and I think she made the right choice. In spite of this, there's something you can get from science that can't really get elsewhere, and she said that the work was like looking at the face of nature. It's almost a spiritual experience when you find out a fact about the universe that nobody has known before. That's something that I'll miss. On the other hand there's also a great amount of satisfaction to be gained from creating something new, and that's what has really interested me to a greater and greater extent in recent years. Trading in one satisfying experience for another is no bad thing, even if nothing else can ever replace the feeling you get when you make a new measurement.

Another friend and colleague pointed out that I might miss life as an ex-patriate, and this hadn't occured to me at all. When you're an expat you tend to meet other expats, who are living abroad to follow their passions. You get used to being a tourist in your home town, finding out the most exciting and bizarre places you can. It's an exciting experience, and there's a rush you get when you have a decent converstaion in a foreign language. Knowing that you can set your roots down anywhere is quite liberating and expands the mind. Something I should be careful about is settling down into a rut, where I surround myself with people who have never even travelled abroad, let alone lived in a foreign country. My life has been much richer for being a serial expat and I should try to hold onto that.

Recently I was speaking with a friend who said half-jokingly that I was a poor role model because of the sacrifices he had to make to be a physicist. I pointed out that this was one of the main reasons for leaving. We have to make sacrifices for anything we choose to do, and making a different set of sacrifices can be a welcome change. While I see that having role models at any stage in your career is important, I don't think that a fallen role model is a reason to lose motivation, and in any case I should be a strong role model for those people who want to leave the field. The only difference between my own experience and other people's is that I'm publicly discussing my choice. It helps focus my own mind, and helps others who are going through similar thought processes to come to conclusions.

Finally I'll mention my own thoughts on the matter. At every stage in my life I've been more interested in becoming something rather being something. I'd rather study to get a degree than just have the degree, I'd rather search the dataset for a new discovery than have my name on the discovery paper. In the same way I'd rather do everything necessary to become a professor than actually be a professor, and I think that I would stand a rather good chance at getting a faculty position if I applied myself. However once I got a permanent position somewhere I'd stop becoming a professor and start being a professor. It's not that I wouldn't have things to aim for after that, but it just wouldn't be the same. I enjoy the struggle, I enjoy bettering myself, I enjoy working my way up to more prestigious positions, but I don't want that process to end yet.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Health scare

Recently my nana was taken into hospital with blood clots in her lungs. That's the kind of condition that can be suddenly fatal, or from which one can make a full recovery. I found out about her condition on Tuesday evening, after she'd been in hospital for a few days and her situation looked serious. At the time I was in Brussels, due to fly to Geneva on the Thursday to give a talk, and then to Belgrade on the Saturday to attend a week long conference. I tried to find a way to fit in a trip to the UK to see her while I still could. Leaving that a week or more could have meant it was too late.

Having lost my other grandmother while I was in the USA (having visited her in hospital a couple of weeks before) I didn't want the same thing to happen to my nana while I was away. She's a central part of my mother's side of the family, linking my rather large extended family together and for as long as I can remember hosting very successful parties on Hallowe'en (very close to her birthday.) When I think of my nana I usually have memories of when I was a teenager and still living in Crewe. She loved to make us bacon sandwiches, rice pudding, and cups of tea. (I still enjoy a good cup of tea when I visit her.) So when I found out she might not leave the hospital alive I found myself dealing with the potential of a double loss, first that I might lose my nana, and second that I might lose one of my strongest connections to my past and to the rest of my family.

My decision to move abroad for a few years was largely a response to my brother's suicide, and it was a good opportunity to get away and clear my mind of troubles while I got the rest of my life back together again. I saw staying in academia as the easy option in terms of my emotional state (it's obviously the more challenging option, intellectually, which also helped.) But now, nine years after Dylan's death it's fairly obvious that I've come to terms with that loss and moved with my life. In the meantime I'm still living abroad while my nana is rushed into hospital while a potentially life threatening condition, and all I can think of is that I don't want her to die before I return to the UK. The whole incident has reinforced all the reasons why I want to return. There are many sacrifices that have to be made to be a nomadic scientist (or nomadic in any profession) but close family members are not sacrifices I want to make. I've been away for eight years now, and people's lives have moved on, some people have had brushes with death. On the other hand I'm just eight years older and eight years more experienced and there's nothing really keeping me in Belgium (or anywhere else) long term.

I get the feeling that had my nana died while I was abroad and I suffered from amnesia about the past few years, the first question I'd ask myself would be "Why were you still in Belgium in the first place?" I don't think I could provide an answer to that question that wouldn't work equally well if I chose to live in the UK instead.