Category Archives: language

Zoom and defocus

I found working during a pandemic particularly hard. While there are some people who seem perfectly fine with working remotely, it seems that the unease might have to do both with the kind of person you are (introvert/extrovert), but most fundamentally with the nature of your work.

When you work in a team, say in scientific engineering, it seems the biggest challenge with online meetings is the lack of multi-channel conversation and feedback, because it allows to more precisely frame the scope of the task:

Asking the right questions is more important than answering them
– Cantor

… to which Benoit Mandelbrot replied “Asking the right questions is as important as answering them.” This is important, because in absence of a well defined scope, it may take much longer to answer a question (a design, a calculation) than you may think, because the task is ill-posed and you can’t reorient the scope (e.g. refine, modify assumptions) to find a solution in due time.

The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.
– Bertrand Russell

I’ve learned from a friend that while Amazon initially said at the start of the pandemic that they would be considering more working from options, they now want to bring everyone to office. It is my impression (at least my experience!) that the initial gains in productivity that made them seriously considering WFH might have come from some initial momentum, where tasks were well-delineated, but eventually faded away.

It is possible that zoom fatigue is also at play, or simply the effect of isolation on people, but I believe that the general exhaustion may also come from a general lack of direction.

edit June 11, 2021: here’s a interesting article from Gibbs at a. at UChicago:
Work from Home & Productivity: Evidence from Personnel & Analytics Data on IT Professionals

Those who did perceive declines in productivity also experienced lower levels of well-being from WFH. Bellmann and Hubler (2020) find that working remotely has no long-run effect on work-life balance, and that a switch to WFH increases job satisfaction only temporarily. Work-life balance mayalso be affected by decreased commuting time. Barrero et al. (2020) estimate that during the height of the pandemic, WFH reduced total commuting time among US workers by more than 60 million hours per work day.

ALS-U CD-2

The upgrade of the Advanced Light Source (ALS-U), the project I’m working on, has received CD-2 approval from the US Department of Energy, meaning that we are gearing up towards final design and will soon start ordering tons of magnets and mirrors, and transform our beloved light source into a laser-like source of x-rays, to enable the next generation in batteries, solar cells, computers and medicines (among many other things:)

Advanced Light Source Upgrade Project Achieves Major Milestone

Here’s a few recent highlights from the research enabled by the little synchrotron that could:

Jennifer Doudna, chair of the Advanced Light Source Users’ Executive Committee (around 2001)

A last bit of research by my colleague Alex Frañó (and friend from the ALS Users’ Executive Committee) gets my neurons randomly firing up at night: Rethinking the fundamental way electrons interact in superconducting quantum materials. It progressively appear that skyrmions and superconductivity may be intimately related: A New Twist Reveals Superconductivity’s Secrets (Quanta magazine.) If this is true, we’re on the verge of a major shift: we could potentially engineer interfaces to create room temperature superconductivity. That would be a revolution: we could transfer power from a place to another with no loss (electrical line losses are about 50%) and we could democratize magnetic levitation for transportation.

Mindfulness meditation

Over the last month I conducted interviews with people from the Berkeley Lab meditation group that we started three years ago.

Mindfulness Meditation – An Interview with the LBL Mindfulness Meditation Group

The meditation group is quite diverse, from members of the National Academy of science to postdocs to building project managers, and it was a blast to get to talk to them and learn about how they see things and what they enjoy!

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Dreams

I made it – I finally reached a dream, a promise I made to my mom at the dawn of my life, thirty years ago:

I have become a savant!

We’re going through difficult times, but this news obviously bring some light into this darkness.

Berkeley women supercharching the US government

There’s been quite a shift in the US government, and I am thrilled to see that Berkeley, my town of adoption, is very well represented in the new administration. It shouldn’t be a surprise given a premier public university is obviously a great pool of talent, but there is something about the place and its people that is very special and I cannot pinpoint. Among the Berkeley representatives in the new government:

  • Kamala Harris, the Vice-President, who grew up in Berkeley and whose mother worked at Berkeley Lab
  • Jennifer Granholm, the Secretary of Energy, who is professor at Berkeley and technically a colleague from Berkeley Lab
  • Janet Yellen, the Secretary of Treasury and a former Berkeley professor.

It is my experience that the US administration can be extremely competent under a good leadership, a point made by Michael Lewis (another Berkeley resident) in his book The Fifth Risk, where he was trying to explain how we might survive a deficient head of government (it seems he’s been right on that one, though we lost half a million people to a pandemic that could probably have been contained much better.

Building on 4th Street, Berkeley

In terms of science, the outlook is pretty good, with people. It also happens that Frances Arnold, Nobel prize laureate and Berkeley alumni, will be part of the government, will help Eric Lander whose role at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy has been elevated to cabinet role. There’s also the Endless Frontier bill that would double the funding of science in the US and likely to pass thanks to bipartisan support.

It’s quite a home run year for Berkeley women, with Jennifer Doudna who was awarded a Nobel prize for her discovery of CRISPR/Cas9.

More:

Michael Lewis: ‘Trump is like a psycho dad to America’ – The Guardian

Flights

A friend of mine offered me a drone late last year, and since then I’ve been flying it every time the wind is not strong enough for kites (kites have been my lifeline during the pandemic.)

Here is a bunch of drone flights (Youtube), and below a selection of my favorite ones.

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aknownspace

My friend Sana has started a wonderful literary project called “A known space.”

Here’s the first issue: A known space: Vol. 1: Nucleus (my personal contribution: The Sound of the waves)

credit: Szymon Kobusiński – TRANSSUBSTANTIATIO

Wade on!

Education in synchrotron

A new year is always a good time to try something new, and because we’re all stuck home because of the pandemic, it’s also a good occasion to learn more about some topics in science. I’ve consolidated here some resources that I have enjoyed over the years, or that are not easily accessible (the information about x-rays tend to be scattered, which is something x-ray do very well)

To get started, I recommend going through the free course by Philip Wilmott from PSI on EdX: Synchrotrons and X-Ray Free Electron Lasers. It is pretty comprehensive and covers a lot of the basis of x-ray science; it’s basically a boiled down version of the companion book “An Introduction to Synchrotron Radiation: Techniques and Applications” he wrote in 2011. This would take probably a week full-time, but you can probably stretch them over a few month if you’re not into binge watch (but it is probably as captivating as the Queen’s Gambit.)

The blue glow of the synchrotron radiation (AW 2020)

To mention also: if you’re a grad student working with synchrotrons, I would recommend applying for the three-week National School on Neutron and X-ray Scattering, generally at Argonne National Lab in the summer, but online this time around. I’m not sure if they will increase their cap of 60 participants.

Light source 101

For the ALS User Meeting this year (held remotely), Fanny Rodolakis and Monika Blum organized a new edition of the Light Source 101 workshop, where beamline scientists from the Advanced Light Source explain their science. Luckily, these talks where recorded (they are available as bulk here), and I have edited them in sizeable, 30-min chunks about most of the cool techniques we offer.

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The value of coffee in research

The past nine months have been spent working from home, and it has now become clear that what I miss the most is the casual interactions with colleagues in the coffee room.

It is a place where ideas sparks, and where information flows from one scientist to the other. The importance of this liminal space should not be understated. It provides a safe space where ideas can be freely challenged and developed, owing to the generally low number of participants, the low stakes and the general mood.

Over the years, I’ve developed several coffee clubs in my buildings (I’ve changed buildings three times), adding an espresso machine wherever I could (often on my own funds, though coffee beans where purchased collectively.)

Elementary Table of Coffee (Berkeley Lab building 2 coffee room, 2013-2016) (@awojdyla, Feb 4 2018)

The importance of the mood component became apparent as we switched to online meetings and we started to lack this kind of space (thankfully my colleague Diane B. organized regular coffee zooms!), though nothing replaces the in-person interaction, with a white board where people can share their thoughts.

Saul Perlmutter casting a definitive vote on the planet-ness of Pluto in our coffee room (Berkeley Lab building 2)

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A fine year

January–March 2020: Streaming along

April–May 2020: Zoom background

June–August 2020: Getting cosy despite the circumstances

A-Ok

September–October 2020: Forrest fires

November 2020: Elections

December 2020: Vaccine and holiday wishes