Nomadic small-angle scatterers: a moving tale

"Reading Tea Leaves", Harry Herman Rosel, 1906 public domain image. source:,_1906,_oil_on_canvas_-_New_Britain_Museum_of_American_Art_-_DSC09351.JPG
"Reading Tea Leaves", Harry Herman Rosel, 1906 public domain image. source:,_1906,_oil_on_canvas_-_New_Britain_Museum_of_American_Art_-_DSC09351.JPG

It has been over five years since we set foot in Japan, and what an interesting time it has been!. We decided, however, that it is high time to try another country. We will be moving to Berlin, where I will take up a position at the Bundesanstalt fur Materialforschung und -prüfung.

There are, of course, many (secret) reasons for our actions, some of which may resonate with some of you. First and foremost, we hope that the new place can offer a very multicultural, multilingual and exciting environment for our kid to grow up in. We also hope that there are better chances for my partner to continue their career. And perhaps some work-life balance. That would be nice.

For me, many of my (current and potential) collaborators are in Europe, but the enormous distance from here makes it tough for me to be of much use to them. There are exciting projects in the making at the new place, revolving around metrology, standardization and calibration. I will surely talk about that later this year!

To say that the Japanese work culture has nothing to do with our decision would be disingenuous too. We have not had bad experiences here, but problems are becoming more visible the longer one stays. For example, it is painfully obvious that this country suffers from deep-rooted sexism, and “cultural tradition” has so far prevented any structural reform to alleviate this and many other issues. And while there are many gestures made by politicians and organizations which have the appearance to address or resolve these issues, in reality nothing changes (see, for example “Abenomics”).

Nevertheless, I am hopeful. Because despite this oppressive system, there are many smart, curious, strong-willed and good people here who understand and are critical of their own system. It is my sincere wish that they may one day manage to punch through the barriers strong enough to make a change. Indeed, Japanese history is full of people who looked critically at society, who saw that many things are good, but some things could do with some improving*.

Japan has positively amazing aspects too, cleanliness and quality of service being just two of them. You will never have to deal with grumpy cashiers, inaccurate public transport timetables, or dirty public toilets. Furthermore, the devotion given by the Japanese to their work and (typically singular) hobby is immensely admirable. They who tell you they “occasionally play soccer” will absolutely crush you in a friendly match whilst being humble about their near god-like capabilities. Likewise, there are some amazing (lone) scientists here doing stellar work.

Moving from here therefore means leaving behind many good things. We have become good friends with a handful of people here, whom we will have to part with with much sadness (and the intention of frequent visits). The sunny, mild winters, the nearby beach, the fascination of Tokyo around the corner.

Work-wise, I will leave behind my new colleagues, my always-almost-very-nearly-completed Ultra-SAXS instrument, and several interesting projects and collaborations. Furthermore, there is a laboratory full of reclaimed instrumentation (and a very nice new Xenocs X-ray source). Pieces and parts which may never find utility now.

This we shall leave behind for an uncertain future. We carry with us some ideas and ideals, we will look back on fond memories, pick up our bags and head towards Interesting Times.

*) How does one know what is right? For some things, the situation is complex. But start with the simple things: The gender imbalance, the lack of housing insulation, etc. For these, we all know what is right. After that, slowly but surely you can move to more complicated subjects, such as dinosaur politicians.

"Reading Tea Leaves", Harry Herman Rosel, 1906  public domain image. source:,_1906,_oil_on_canvas_-_New_Britain_Museum_of_American_Art_-_DSC09351.JPG
“Reading Tea Leaves”, Harry Herman Rosel, 1906 public domain image. source:,_1906,_oil_on_canvas_-_New_Britain_Museum_of_American_Art_-_DSC09351.JPG


  1. Hi Brian :)

    What news ! Congratulations for your position.
    I think that Berlin can fit with your expectations ! When did you plan to leave ?
    I also hope that this merger will allow us to work together.

    Congratulations again !

  2. Wow,
    Great news. Congratulations on that and all the best in Berlin.
    I am pretty convinced that Berlin is up to what you’re looking for, given what you write in your post.
    Perhaps we’ll run into each other on this years SAS.

    All the best!

  3. Hi Greg,

    Absolutely, one of the reasons to move is to improve collaborations! I’ll leave here late July, starting there beginning of September. Though with SAS2015 in September, I guess there will not be too much progress in the first few months…


  4. Hi Tilman,

    I am very curious to see what Berlin is going to be like, whether we can find everything we need. I am also looking forward to meeting you at SAS2015, are you giving a talk there? And yes, the 3D SAXS post is still in the making ;).


  5. Hi Brian,

    Unfortunately I only got a poster at the SAS but still, I think it’ll be great.
    What position will you exactly hold at the BAM?
    I turned my interest from 3D SAXS to 3D XRD. I hope that I can tell you a bit more about in Berlin.

  6. Hi Tilman,

    3D XRD sounds exciting, though the maths necessary for reconstruction is probably beyond me! I’ll only have posters as well, unfortunately no chance to present this time!

    I’ll be on a permanent position at BAM, so my plans there are not limited to just a year or two!


  7. Congratulations to your new job.

    It is not only Japan that has a problem of deep-rooted sexism.
    In addition, science does not provide a work-life balance if you are honest. I think it is a shame that when you started your job nobody showed interest for possible career opportunities of your partner. Not every partner is sitting at home doing the house work.
    And for the remaining pieces, don’t worry. If there is only investment into machines, but not in humans, not your fault.

  8. Hi, and thanks!
    I was once told (by J.-S Pedersen) that there are two funding waves in opposite phases: At one point, there will be lots of money for machines, not people. A few years later, you find yourself with people aplenty but everyone working hard to keep the rickety machines from breaking down. Perhaps that is the case here and in a few years there will be money for people, not machines.
    It remains sad, however, to see instrumentation that could have supported a few research groups elsewhere, deteriorating due to lack of manpower and attention, only to be replaced by a slightly newer version of the same. So much effort is poured into writing grant applications to fund replacements for what is already available (though this is also the fault of management for evaluating staff by the funding they draw in, c.f. Moriarty’s latest post on the topic here: ).

    And yes, the work-life balance of scientists can be a bit lopsided. However, at the upcoming place this may be easier to balance, we will see!

  9. Fair enough but the current situation shows it again. Money for machines and no investment into man power aka permanent science positions. In the extreme way I saw just two scientists taking care of a whole beamline alone, permanently and the whole week for years. Good luck.
    You forgot one thing to mention. Knowledge ist constantly lost by replacing people. Often there is no overlap and that is also not a benefit for any instrument.

  10. You and I agree on many things, but I must say that I subscribe to a particular –perhaps outdated– ideal of science. That ideal has been carefully described in the last segment (5 minutes in) of the last video on this post:

    To a certain degree, money is needed to do science. However, what we need most of all is time. Time to learn, to discuss and develop ideas, to experiment with these ideas, verify and (if it stands up to scrutiny) to publish. I guess that, in order to reduce our administrative overhead, we must have ceded control to administrators (if we ever had it in the first place), who promptly went ahead and maximized their vision of “efficiency” without a thorough understanding of what it is that we do.

    This has two flaws. Firstly, their definition of efficiency is thoroughly flawed (due to their basis in inappropriate metrics to quantify science). Yet somehow we have waded into the situation where scientists believe their metrics to have merit, and so we too are guilty for believing without questioning. Secondly, however, what does “efficiency” in science even mean? To me, it very much feels like the concept of “Quality” as explored in “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”: the more you think about it, the less it makes sense.

    (I.e.: you could say “efficiency” is the number of discoveries per dollar, but that pushes towards publishing copious quantities of minimal discoveries. Is it then the quality of the discovery per dollar? But how does one assess that for any given, recent discovery? Are scientists supposed to be efficient at all, would that not conflict with being thorough?)

    Back to the real world: I know of the beamlines run by only a skeleton crew, and this is on the verge of slavery (and the reason I left the synchrotron world after SPring-8). These beamlines are complex instruments, requiring great care (and indeed love) to keep performing.

    Throwing “disposable” temporary scientists at the instruments makes no difference: by the time they learned the ins and outs of the instrument and can fully contribute, they have to depart (making it futile to try to learn at all). As you say, this moves knowledge away from the place it is needed, but also reduces motivation to invest time and effort to learn and improve.

    To not end on a gloomy note, however: I know of at least one beamline in Berlin where the beamline manager works only 4 days a week, the fifth day he spends with his family. Such lifestyles can create demonstrably energetic, enthusiastic people. Allow people some freedom to make such decisions, showing that the organization cares about them, and they will pay it back double and care for the organization.

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