Thursday, May 12, 2016

Rewarding talent and competence more than aggression?

The main message my friends (mostly male) and I get after applying for jobs is that we were not aggressive enough in presenting our achievements. But is this the most desirable quality? It seems to be rewarded across all fields ranging from politicians to professors. If you look at the US elections you get a prime example of the system of values that permeates our society.

As a physicist I often read sexual harassment stories that made it to the news and sometimes hear about those that did not get that far. Is such behavior the fault of our selection process more than of anything else? Do we take other qualities like talent at face value only when they are coupled with an aggressive presenter? Do we often become blind to the lack of content when the presenter is aggressive enough?

Meg Ury has a well written article in Scientific American on how to end sexual harassment in astronomy. She proposes speaking up, taking allegations seriously and dealing with them. I agree that a transparent process that deals with such allegations is necessary in all companies and universities, but I don't think that's enough. I also believe that our selection process has to change its bias.

This is an email I received from one of my friends with a Cornell PhD, who is talented as well as empathic and kind:  "All is well at my end. We recently had a baby girl. She is about 7 and a half months old now.  I have a 3 year research grant from the government, but after that things are again a bit up in the air. The money for this 3 year cycle has also not been sanctioned - so all my work currently is unpaid!  Pay or no pay, academia is pretty ruthless - so one has to keep working." She goes on explaining that she likes the work she does, but that she would still like to be paid. I see the grant application process in science as another form of harassment rather than as a way to promote talent. It's just too complicated to be functional as are many other rules. 

I am not a physicist or astronomer, so why should I care? 
Problems in the world are related. Our indifference to global warming, to the mistreatment of animals and of the humans who manufacture the goods we use is related to how we select our leaders, and to how we educate our children. 
Without the make-up?
Instead of selecting competent leaders, we obey CIA's manuals on how to sabotage the productivity of our companies and universities almost perfectly. We make rules that contradict each other and are too complicated to read in one sitting. We design official channels that cannot be followed without serious threats to one's sanity. We select leaders that are aggressive, but too old to have the stamina to change a heavily dysfunctional system because we've heard of them before and because they have been taught to be aggressive enough in presenting themselves.

Disclaimer: I do not own any of the images in this post. They are randomly picked from the web.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Moving again: my life as a scientist

Me temporarily parked in a handicapped spot at Cornell
Most positions are temporary, but in science positions come in a particular class of finite. There are so few permanent positions and each selection process is so biased that the probability of getting one is almost non-existent. Yet most young scientists hope that they are special enough to make it. This keeps them going together with the love for what they do and a certain lack of flexibility, which comes from the fear of change.

There are some benefits from traveling, but what comes to mind now as I think about moving again are the questions and the stares I get from people on the street.

I have a lousy German accent, and had a strong accent in English when I was first in the US. So, I have never been considered to belong to any of the places I lived in. The typical questions I still get are: where am I  originally from? how many siblings do I have? how (on Earth) did I succeed with my (inferior) background to work in a university?

In light of our fear of migrants from Syria, it makes sense to answer these questions in writing.

0.1 Is my background really inferior? Mircea Zaganescu guided my brother through his first attempts of understanding relativity when he was in his teens. The physics wing of the university in Timisoara is now named after him. There is also a physics contest that bears his name. The primary school nr. 6 is named after Anisoara Odeanu, a writer who lived across the street. The street I was walking to school on and the national theater are named after the brother of a family friend, Olga Grozavescu. She was the first woman from Romania to receive a PhD abroad, which even then had to be recognized by the university in Bucharest. She had to take an exam with Nicolae Iorga (Romania's greatest historian), who asked Olga: "Tell me about your brother".  Traian Grozavescu had been so talented and handsome that soldiers stopped fighting when they heard him sing. So, he would sing when the injured had to be carried out. When his body was taken home from Vienna there were more people on the streets to mourn his death than there had been for the prince whose murder started the first world war. While these are all fairly minor historical figures, I grew up with their stories and they played some role in shaping my life. Mihai jokes that Lugoj is small enough that they may add a memorial plaque for us some day.

Grandpa and Grandma
0.2  What about my family? When I think of my time in Romania, I think of family and friends.  My grandmother was the best Mathematics teacher I have ever known. She had been my ideal for strength, stability and common sense. My mother is an outstanding doctor. She represented intelligence, strength and beauty. Tusa Tavi (my great-aunt) was gentleness and propriety. She had a degree in Mathematics, too. Grandpa was persistent. He had been a silvic engineer and had the courage to shape and save lives. My father was a doctor like my mother. He has a more tumultuous personality. Tanti Keti (Ecaterina Zaganescu) and Tanti Mia (Maria Sacalus) matched my mother in both kindness and beauty. Mihai and I thrived on their stories and on their cookies.

Back to the original questions:

1. Where am I  originally from?
I am from Romania. It's a country in the middle of Europe - next to the Black Sea. If pressed for details I would add that the story of Dracula was inspired by a Romanian prince, and that we have also had a good football team, outstanding gymnastics and more recently very talented tennis players.

2. How many siblings do I have?
I only have one brother. His name is Mihai and he is a Caltech PhD.

3. How did I succeed with my background?
At first, through tests and exams, and later through more work and more exams. I took the SATs and Mathematics GRE when I was 18, and scored well. I was accepted to a number of universities in the US including the University of Rochester, Reed College, and Washington College, but decided to go to Illinois because of Ed Seidel, who was visiting NCSA for 3 weeks. He and Paul Saylor helped me enroll full time in Parkland College, and part time in the University of Illinois. Ed decided to complicate his vacation with me because my brother had told him "Ed, if you think I am good, my sister is even better". With more help from Galina Wind, Linda Lorenz, Mats Selen, Gary Gladding and others, I obtained a teaching assistantship. It came with a tuition waiver and the stipulation that I graduate in a year.  With help from Mark Williams and Linda Lorenz,  who arranged exams for me and advised on which courses I should take to make the fastest exit, I graduated from the University of Illinois with a major in Physics, and a double minor in Mathematics and Computer Science. While in Champaign-Urbana, Doina Costescu and her family made me feel at home, and Greg Daues and Jayashree Balakrishna were the best collaborators a person could hope for. I then went on to pursue a Cornell PhD. I took my last exam and obtained my doctorate degree at 25. I still work long hours, and hope that the world (and the physics community) finds my work interesting.

Mihai and I were almost always surrounded by outstanding people.  But most of the people we knew when we were children are now dead. So, did they matter? what did I learn from them when I was growing up?

When things get bad and I lose faith, I think of them and of their stories. They believed in me and trusted me, and this gives me strength. I learned to ask questions, and trust my instinct.  They loved me unconditionally, yet taught me to be humble. They tried to always give their best, and ask for nothing or as little as possible in return. They also used to say that it's OK to turn when there is no way forward, and it's OK to fail, and it's OK to quit. When I fail, I think of them. After Tanti Keti's parents parents died when she was 14, she moved in with her aunt.   Then the house where her aunt lived was bombed, and Keti was left alone in a trench in a night-gown. She decided to join the war as a nurse to search for her twin brothers. Whenever I'd get hurt, my aunt would ask her (or Tanti Mia) to come. When she would hear "there is blood", she imagined waves of it reaching the door and my injuries were always minor by comparison. She was not able to help her brothers live through the war, but she moved on and continued to love and help people throughout her life. My troubles always seem so little relative to what they all went through.

 Yet, I often feel alone. All my colleagues and friends are busy. There are no friends to visit with my children. They won't have the kind of guidance I had, and I feel that I have failed in some fundamental way - I don't have a network of people who are close enough for them to meet and learn from.

Moral: Avoid drawing conclusions about people you don't know just because they come from a certain part of the world.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

When a man is lonely, all he needs is a chicken ...

It was close to midnight. I was trying to persuade Edward to sleep by telling him that all the birds (including the chickens) have been asleep since sunset. We walk outside to check that everything is quiet, and suddenly see a chicken walking under the street lights. Edward was eating an apple, and excitedly shared it with the chicken who had trouble falling asleep just like him.

Edward and the black and white hen
Edward: "When a man is lonely, all he needs is a chicken. Then he has a small friend." I pointed out that I was also there. So, he pragmatically agreed that he can cuddle with me, but not with the chicken, and concluded that I was needed as well. He then accepted to get in bed, and he was soon asleep.

The next morning he was passing by a sleepy-looking chicken and feelingly said "Frumoaso ... poate esti in ocluzie" ("Beautiful one, perhaps you are in a state of intestinal occlusion"). The statement is not so unreasonable as it might seem. If chickens are not treated for parasites regularly, the parasites block the intestinal tract and the animal dies. No chickens died in the two weeks we were there.

Edward really liked the black and white hen (pic above) because he thought she looked just like his father - I personally did not see the similarly, but I suppose it's a matter of imagination. I cannot imagine how either Andy or I would look as chickens, but Edward thinks he can. His favorite hen was Codchi. She was of a reddish color and had a really long claw nail. She had been rehabilitated in our garden after being sold out from an egg farm because she was no longer producing enough eggs. She was there in our February visit, but did not make it till May.
Codchi, Edward and David

In addition to chickens our next door neighbor also had two puppies. We borrowed one for a day, and the children named her Siri. We do have a dog there with a reddish looking fur. Edward thought him very fox-like. He referred to him as his "Barking, walking, personal flea bag" and to himself as the "Walking, talking flea bag". We did use some solution against the flee, but the dog has such a thick fur that I am not sure it accomplished much.

Piki and Kiki & the Romanian flag
We were in Romania in February and May. Each time we stayed two weeks. These are pictures from that period.

With the tortoises
Edward will be six in August. For his birthday he wants to get two chickens, two ducks,  two pigeons, and a goat. His dream is to train them so that  they can accompany him everywhere. He also wants two terrapins, but for that we would need a pond-like aquarium - not that any of the other animals would be easy to take care of. David was nine in February. He is more interested in drones and other forms of electronics.

We already have two small tortoises. The tortoises are named Kiki and Piki.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Once upon a wave ...

The beginning
Mihai at Caltech
I first learned about gravitational waves from my brother, Mihai. It was 2001. He was a PhD student at Caltech, and had just started working with Kip Thorne. He was so excited about the topic that he convinced Kip to let him record his gravitational wave course. It felt so timely because LIGO was running and this was one of the first courses taught on the subject. These were the movies that Mihai and Kip produced before Kip became executive producer of Interstellar. Mihai had to buy a camera, which was eventually reimbursed, and learn how to use the equipment to turn the lectures into the almost-timeless movies that are available on youtube today. The movies were burned on DVDs and each DVD would take hours to burn, and many days to produce. The Interstellar movie was selected by Steven Spielberg, whom Kip called the King of Hollywood, about two years before I received my PhD from Cornell (around 2006).

 I was an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois under the supervision of Edward Seidel. I worked with Gregory Daues, Michael Russell (now Head Engineer for Curiosity) and Jason Novotny on one of the first grid portals. It proposed ideas that are now applied in Cloud computing (our project won two HPC challenge awards and the Bandwidth challenge at SC2002; the demonstration is described in our paper). Physics-wise, in collaboration with Jayashree Balakrishna, Greg and Ed, I started a project on computing gravitational waves from simulations of perturbed boson stars and soliton stars, which are objects made from dark matter particles that could mimic black holes.

I was 20 when I graduated from college, and started a PhD at Cornell. In vacations, I kept visiting Mihai at Caltech. We'd go to Kip's group meeting together. The Caltech group was so confident that LIGO and LISA were already 'done' that they started thinking about missions beyond LISA. Sterl Phinney was talking about the Big Bang Observer - a mission that would map the gravitational wave sky and would be sensitive to both LIGO and LISA sources, and to gravitational waves produced in the early universe. The technology is still not yet there, but perhaps worth re-investigating.

I started graduate school in 2003. Then numerical relativists could not yet solve Einstein's equations on the computer to simulate black hole orbiting each other. Their solutions would blow up. The first simulation of a black hole binary through plunge, merger and ring-down was performed in 2004 by Frans Pretorius, who had been a postdoc at Caltech. Later the following year, the development of new coordinate conditions also known as the moving puncture method allowed for accurate, long term evolution of binary black holes. We were all surprised by the simplicity of the merger part of the waveform. The movie of the two coalescing black holes showed in LIGO's press release was simulated with the Spectral Einstein Code - my PhD advisor, Saul Teukosky, led the SpEC effort. I remember him telling us that in 20 years everyone will use Spectral methods because they are the most rapid and the most accurate, and provide exponential convergence. Almost 20 years have passed. Results from SpEC have been used by Hollywood in the Interstellar movie and in the LIGO press release where they present the first gravitational wave detection.  Other methods continue to be used as well because they are more amenable to more general, non-spherical situations.

Tanja Hinderer in one of our hiking trips
I first visited LIGO in 2003/2004 when Mihai and I taught the first gravitational wave course from Louisiana State University. The course was based on Kip's Caltech lectures. It was Christmas, which was the only time we could leave our respective universities for such a venture. We were sponsored by Edward Seidel and Gabrielle Allen. Most of our students were LIGO members, and so they invited us to see the detector.  A detection was expected any time. They were so enthusiastic that they came to class on Christmas Eve and New Years Day. The student who had asked Mihai to give the lecture series in the first place was Tiffany Findley. She was in her early twenties, had two young children, and yet she served as the driving force for this class that must have been put above the needs of her family. I then organized a similar course at Cornell. We'd alternate between watching gravitational wave lectures and going hiking (see picture with Tanja above).

Mihai fixing the glass of my 1991 car
Dave, me and Andy on top of Cornell
As his thesis took shape, Mihai's interest lay with improving the sensitivity of advanced LIGO. He eventually found that the mirrors that optimally reduce the coating thermal noise, which dominates other noises at LIGO's best sensitivity, are conical.  This was contrary to the prior expectation that the beam shape should be as flat as possible to average over the bumps and valleys of the mirror.  He convinced Andrew Lundgren (Andy), David Tsang (Dave) and me to work on an extension of his project, where we showed that finite mirror effects are important. They create some resonances that perhaps could be taken advantage of in future detectors. Had Mihai not been as enthusiastic as he is, neither Andy nor I would have joined LIGO.


Sensitivity of Initial vs Advanced LIGO
In 2008, after finishing my thesis on R-modes - a kind of oscillations in neutron stars that are driven unstable by gravitational wave emission - I joined the Lee Samuel Finn's Penn State group and the LIGO collaboration. Andy's first postdoctoral position was at Syracuse University in the group of Prof. Duncan Brown. He was fascinated by the detector, and delved into his work body and soul.  

Long before he started working with me, Sam had developed the noise model that generates the LIGO sensitivity curves like the one above.  With me, he worked on a pipeline called MaxEnt. We aimed to infer gravitational waves for unmodelled sources. I remember giving a talk about 'detecting things that go bump in the night'. The burst search could, in principle, detect any signal that appeared in both detectors, and was not identified as noise or some kind of instrumental effect.

All members of the collaboration had to go to one of the sites for science monitoring. I went to the Handford LIGO detector for the shift starting at midnight on Halloween 2010.  Although we did not find gravitational waves, I learned about the instrument and about the vitrification plant (turns radioactive material into glass) that was near there. Workers at the vitrification plant retire in their early 50s with pensions; also, cancer is not the most prevalent disease when the poisoned while working in a toxic medium - immune system disorders like multiple sclerosis are more frequent.

Test waveform from my work with Sam
My job at Penn State was to combine the polarization of the gravitational waves via Stokes parameters into circular, linear and elliptical polarization and use these to infer properties of the source. We spent a lot of time injecting fake waveforms from 20+ solar mass black hole binaries first into white noise, and later into real LIGO noise. Some were from the Georgia Tech numerical relativity group, and others we generated from post-Newtonian approximations glued upon some damped sinusoidal for the ring-down part of the waveform.  They looked eerily similar to what was finally detected. We thought LIGO would first detect mergers of 20-30 solar mass black holes because they would be the loudest, but we only guessed that this population of black holes existed and that enough such binaries were close-enough to be seen by our detectors on Earth.

The Spinning Template Bank
Ohme, Lundgren et al. PRD 88 (2013)
When I got pregnant with Edward (the youngest author from the books above), I convinced Andy to move to Penn State. He moved the day Edward was born, and worked with Ben Owen, who had been the primary developer of LIGO's original template bank. The primary method of searching for gravitational waves is through matching templates that are derived from Post Newtonian theory. These templates are correlated with data to identify the waveforms from black hole or neutron star binaries. Andy understood how the template bank worked form Ben. But just like most stars and planets spin around their own axis, so do black holes. This spin was not taken into account. The collaboration had tried to sort this problem since LIGO started running, and failed to find a solution. Andy came up with a geometric trick that treats each post-Newtonian order as a coordinate. It makes up a high-dimensional flat space, whose points can be easily computed (see picture on the right).  Andy was so preoccupied by this problem that he thought up this solution in a dream and it happened to work. The papers and the code that implemented this idea took years to finish and involved a number of collaborators.

LIGO's Science Run (O1), which ended in January 2016, is the first to search for spinning black holes. While Andy continued his core-LIGO work at the Albert Einstein Institute in Hanover, Germany, I moved to Switzerland and started work related to atomic clocks.

The detection
There are number of very good news articles out there about the detection itself in addition to the technical papers, and about how LIGO began. In a nutshell,  two black holes of 36 and 28 solar masses collided and formed one big black hole. They radiated 3 solar masses in gravitational waves. About 1 billion years after it happened, the two LIGO detectors were able to detect this cosmic storm on Earth!  Gravitational waves are how black holes talk to us. Most scientists thought that advanced LIGO would find gravitational waves, but just not in one of the Engineering runs.

The first emails after the detection - many sent by Andy.
Just before the detection,  Andy was appointed detector characterization chair with David Shoemaker.   So, more than 10 years after sitting in Kip Thorne's group meetings, and watching him lecture on gravitational waves, he became the second person to see the first gravitational wave. Marco Drago was the first to find the event, and report it to Andy as a potential injection. Andy checked all the channels and found that it was real. He talked to his other colleagues in nearby offices, and then encouraged Marco to send the first email that woke everyone up.

His first job as Detector Characterization Chair was to lead the first phone meeting after the event. In that meeting, Gabriela Gonzales and Michael Landry confirmed that it was not a blind injection, and Andy stared shaking. He regained his composure enough to continue running the discussion, and although it ran overtime, they went through the agenda as planned.  The last time he shook like that was when he drove the space shuttle at the age of 10. No, it was not the real space shuttle, it was just a very realistic simulation built by NASA. The gravitational wave was real.

Disclaimer: This detection is the work of 1000+ people over 40 years. I could only present it from my perspective. It is not meant to disparage the contribution of other people. I am writing this down for my family because one day my children will be old enough to understand this history, and perhaps by then I will no longer remember it.

The 40 years. People are surprised by the 40+ years it took to find gravitational waves. However, this is often the type of dedication that is needed for success, and LIGO is extremely successful. It's mind boggling that they can measure the stretching and squeezing of space-time at 1/1000 of the diameter of a proton.   Science is not just ideas - it is work - even theoretical papers take years to complete. Space missions take tens of years. Movies take years, too. The script for Interstellar was selected by Spielberg some 10 years before the movie was completed. So, while this detection is something I've been waiting for my whole career, I am not surprised it took this long, and I am thankful that it did not take longer.
For more about the universe and about gravitational waves, read Edward (age 5) and David (age 8)'s books from the side bar above. Andy is Edward's father, but played no role in this book because the detection was secret. There are also a number of relevant technical articles that describe the detection.

Press I got for being the only scientist at the University of Zurich with some LIGO experience: SDA news (,, UZH news (no English version; there are plenty of good articles and videos with more prominent people, though).