A collaborative week in Leiden

I spent the past week at the Lorentz Institute, the theoretical cosmology part of the physics community at Leiden University. My collaborators there are fellow members of CANTATA, an EU COST-Action that is mainly focused on creating and testing alternative theories of gravity, and I was awarded my second STSM (short-term scientific mission) by CANTATA to fund the trip.

I think it’s fair to say that collaborative work in science has never been easier; quite apart from the benefits that basic internet access brings (emails, Skype etc), there are also many tools and services that make working with others simple. For instance, we have GitHub, which is good for keeping track of your own projects but is also great for collectively working on a piece of code. My colleagues and I also use Slack as an alternative to email, for short messages and chatting, as well as sharing plots or snippets of code. The final stage in the process is supported by Overleaf, which we use to write together.

However, not even the use of all these tools combined beats sitting in front of a computer or standing at the whiteboard together, hashing out ideas and moving the project forward, so I’m grateful to CANTATA for sparking this collaboration in the first place, and for their continued funding of our travel.

Besides the work on our project, I was able to attend the Colloquium Ehrenfestii on Wednesday night, a prestigious seminar series organised by the institute. The speaker of the week was Marc Mezard from PSL in Paris, talking about inference and statistical physics. The talk was well pitched and very well delivered, and the (free!) three course dinner beforehand was an added bonus.

The unique feature of the colloquium is the signature wall, where past speakers pencil their name and talk date onto the very fabric of the building, making a concrete record of the physics that has been debated and discussed in Leiden. Amongst the names are those of Einstein, Dirac, Jordan, Pauli, de Sitter, Bohr… the list goes on. Even though it’s a relatively small thing, it makes the greats of the field seem a little less distant and mythical, a little more human and tangible.

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