Category Archives: mood

Plans for the roaring 20’s

I was recently featured twice by Berkeley Lab, first about my work on ALS-U:
Berkeley Lab The Next 90 – Accelerators: Conversation with Antoine Wojdyla.

It was a nice occasion to pay tribute to my grandpa and my grandmother, who passed away last month, and give some representation to the people from the Caribbean. And also explain what I do, and what I’m dreaming up.

Incidentally, I had to clear out my grandparents house, and set foot in his shop, where he was cutting glass and carving wood. In a way, that’s what I am doing right now, studying mirrors and carving out matter, albeit with tighter tolerances.

My grandpa’s shop stockroom (August 2021)

I also had an occasion to share with my colleague Alisa our vision for the Global ERG, which is an association at Berkeley Lab whose goal is to help out international colleagues – many of those who joined lately barely had a chance to meet anyone.
Berkeley Lab The Next 90 – Global ERG: Conversation with Antoine Wojdyla and Alisa Bettale

The scourge of sargassum

I am currently on the island of Saint-Martin, in the French West Indies, about 200 miles away from Puerto Rico, because I couldn’t fly back directly from France, which is still under a Travel Ban order from the US. I have two spend at least two weeks so that I can fly back to Berkeley.

Saint Martin on the map

Walking on beach, it is sad to discover that is littered with sargassum, an invasive algae that barely existed when I was walking my dogs on the beach many years ago. This infestation is quite recent in fact, and somehow started in 2011 (see the excellent piece in The Atlantic by pre-Pulitzer Ed Yong: Why waves of seaweed have been smothering Caribbean beaches.)

Sargassum on Orient Bay, fresh and old (September 2021)

It appears that the bloom may come from the increase in nutrients carried by the Amazon river and making it to the ocean (The great Atlantic Sargassum belt.) Apparently, the problem is becoming more and more acute, and I’ve recently learned that researchers (like my colleagues at Berkeley Lab Lydia Rachbauer) are trying to find enzymes in fish that can actually digest these algae.

Because these algae float in the water, they are effectively a a mix of large floating solar panels, and a potentially a great resource of biofuels, where nothing is needed, since the nutrients are provided for free by farmers from the Amazon river. Apparently, there are companies such as C-combinator who are trying to extract the energy from these algae. I can’t really judge if the economics makes sense (harvesting the algae might be complicated, though they seem very easily visible on satellite images so that might help), but developing adequate techniques for a problem that may blow up seems a good idea.

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Hikes in Berkeley and around

Some times ago I gave a talk to the Berkeley Lab Postdoc Association about the many hikes around Berkeley.

The slides are available here: go.lbl.gov/blpa/cultural_aw21

And the recording is here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/124Rh0-5q0oVF_tX5_3WV1yd8wW5jKBlz/view

Other resources on this blog:

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!

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

A call to matriotism

We need more matriotism – respect for mother Earth – and less patriotism – the notion that the land belongs to *us*.

A little before the end of year 2020, I saw the fall of Arecibo. The radio-telescope located in the Caribbean Sea, a few hours away by boat from the islands where I grew up, was gone forever. It had seen the same starry skies than I did and went through the same hurricanes. Yet, it is abandonment, in the middle of the rainforest, that got to the end of it. And seeing the receiver falling down could only bring back the painful memories of the Notre-Dame spires in flame.

If current large scientific instruments can be compared to modern-day cathedrals, we must however notice that the domes of temples are directed inward, towards the Man who wants to know itself, whereas radio-telescopes are, on the contrary, turned outward, towards space, infinity. Arecibo, like a mother, knows how to receive without deceiving, delivering the secrets of Nature with no need for sermons.