Tuesday, December 1, 2015

An international perspective

This time, I would like to write a little bit about a very important part of our work: Being international.

Right now, in our complete particle physics group, we have with about 25 people about 12 nationalities. So, being international is a very basic part of our daily life. This yields a long list of effects. It starts from using a common language so that everyone one can speak to everyone (which is today English, but has been a different one in the past, and may again be a different one in the future. English as the language of science is only there since less than a century). Thus, we need to educate also all our students in this language somehow. And this not only pertains to normal speaking, but also the specialized vocabulary of our topic.

Being international also requires us to pay attention to many more administrative aspects, which appear due to the existence of different nations. The question of who can represent our work in which country, because it is possible to get a visa, is not an entirely simple problem. Being from the European Union myself puts me in a privileged position, as I can get into most countries with little or no effort. But this is not true for many other people, giving us often headaches and requires long-range planning, if we want someone particular to go somewhere. Furthermore, when students come from abroad, they may have learned different things, and therefore have a different background, which needs to be leveled, so that everyone can talk to everyone. And, finally, this may also manifest on how to incorporate different cultures and habits. This does not only touch upon the personal, but can very much also affect the way how we work together. In some areas of the world, it is still usual that less experienced people accept that what more experienced people do without questioning, probably since childhood, as an example. This does not help in doing science: Everyone has to speak open, and also criticize to find out errors. None of us is error free, and therefore everyone must contribute in nailing errors.

This list can be continued almost indefinitely.

Why do we put up with this? It appears a lot of extra work, just to do science.

But here comes into play how science today operates: On a global scale. And this is very good for two reasons.

One is that the problems we have to deal with becomes more and more specialized, and thus a smaller and smaller percentage of scientists can work on them. To still have a sizable workforce requires therefore to include as many people as possible. Otherwise, too specialized subgroups may loose contact, and become adrift, with no possibility to regain the overarching picture. This could also be put the other way around: Today's problems are far too complex that any single country, even the largest ones, could have enough scientific workforce to deal with them. Everyone is needed. And this not even touches upon having enough resources to do certain kinds of research.

The other is that we need diversity. The different educational, cultural, and habitual backgrounds also play an important role in science. Everyone has learned in school and during studies something in a particular style. Everyone has adopted certain view points, and certain strategies. But science lives in the unknown. There is no gold-plated way how to deal with the unknown. Therefore, there is no special preparation which is the best way to be prepared for doing science. We need many different minds, vastly different minds, such that we can get many perspectives. We need people with different backgrounds, with a different lookout on everything, to find new angles how to deal with problems. We need all ways of seeing things, even those which at first may look not intuitive to ourselves. But we have to learn and listen to all the view points. Thus, everyone who is willing to support the scientific process, the ever turning wheel of creating a theory and putting it through myriads of experimental tests, can provide a new point of view. Thus, diversity is essential for us. New problems need different points of view.

This is one of the points which also explains the many travels scientists do, often for years. Every new surrounding, every new group of peoples, provides a new perspective. Changing one's perspective by traveling, or by bringing many different peoples to our homes, helps us in broadening our view, in giving us the opportunity to learn adopt to take new perspectives. This is demanding for the individual, as it implies being around the world rather than at home, but our understanding profits from being used to seeing things from many perspectives.

The ability to see from different perspectives is not only supported by talking to other scientists. But experiencing different cultures, different surroundings in general, and trying to understand them, gives us the ability. So, diversity is essential to our ability to understand.

This is why being international is so extremely important for modern research, and why diversity counts so much for basic research.

And this also implies that already living in a diverse culture in a single spot will already help us in becoming better in understanding. If we are used to experience the new, and trying to understand it, in everyday live, it prepares us also to face the new at the boundary of our knowledge.