What brought you to Sweden from Canada?
Life, the Universe, and Everything. While in Canada, I was offered the opportunity to do part of my studies in France. After my Ph.D., I stayed in France for postdoctoral work. I tried getting an academic position in France, but it never worked out. Wanting to stay in Europe, that left only the countries where teaching can be in English, and finally ended up in Sweden. There is a very nice expression in French, “les hasards de la vie,” which roughly translates as “the fortuity of life.”
Why did you choose to initially study chemistry?
From a young age, I had two major interests: computers and the sciences. When I was about 16, a friend’s father loaned me the book Molecules by Peter Atkins, and I was utterly fascinated.
I didn’t know what to study at university. Even after narrowing it down to a few fields, it went from chemical engineering to computer science, with atmospheric science in between. After much thinking, I settled for chemistry, because of Molecules. But even then, I was not perfectly sure in which direction to continue.
Between my first and second year as an undergraduate, I got the opportunity to help out with the logistics of a conference one of my professors was organizing, and I got to meet Enrico Clementi, an IBM fellow and a huge person in the field of computational chemistry. I was able to grab a hold of him for a short moment between presentations, told him about my love of chemistry and computers and asked how he managed tFo mix both. He answered me, in a very thick Italian accent, “When you like girrrls, you like all the girrrls. Maybe one girl in particular, but you like all the girrrls,” before walking away. That short answer has stuck with me ever since!
What was it about physics that drew your interest?
Halfway through my undergraduate studies, I realized that I was interested in more fundamental things than what was thought in chemistry. I hesitated about changing programs, but didn’t want to start over at university. I hanged on in chemistry and used my graduate studies to move more and more towards physics, and I have now a position in a physics department.
Take us through your average professional day
There is no such thing as an average day! At my university, the school year is split into four periods, so courses are
semi-intensive. This means periods of heavy teaching, marking exams, etc. Then comes a lull in teaching, with research taking over the daily grind. It makes for very diverse work, which is nice. A downside is that one often has something more interesting to do than what is the more pressing thing to do (please don’t remind me about all the lab reports I should be correcting now instead of answering these questions…)
What does the future hold for you? What are some life/professional goals?
I’m not completely sure. I would of course like to win a Nobel prize, but there is little chance of that! The closest I could come to the Nobels would be to get into the Swedish Academy of Science.
I would say that I am comfortable where I’m at. Probably won’t do any revolutionary discoveries in physics, but I’ve got a few ideas of little things I’d like to work on that should contribute adding a few pieces to the giant jigsaw puzzle that is understanding nature.
I’d like to become full professor, and will see later this year if that is possible, after a couple of hopefully successful Ph.D. thesis defenses.
What are some technologies and science advancements you are keeping an eye on?
One thing that I would like to see in my lifetime is the discovery of alien life.
Technology-wise, I’m interested in what is related to the move away from fossil fuels, like biofuels and battery technology. I’ve given up a bit on nuclear fusion, but I’m not old enough yet to think that it can’t happen before I die.
Who are some of your science heroes and why?
I’m not very keen on the concept of “heroes,” but there are a few scientist I look up to, at least when it comes to science. I have been fascinated by Einstein since my teenage years. I still don’t fully understand why he is such a compelling figure.
I discovered Feynman as an undergraduate when a fellow student urged me to read Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman. He was quite a character!
I’ve always been intrigued by the attraction of relics and artifacts. I got the chance to see a few of a scientific nature, like the desk where Schrödinger worked or Galileo’s index finger.
As for more contemporary scientists, I have a great admiration for Claude Cohen-Tannoudji. I got the occasion to hear his lectures in Paris, and he is remarkable teacher. And as some may have noticed on PF, I’m always keen on recommending his Quantum Mechanics textbook.
What are some of your favorite books, movies, music?
My tastes are eclectic. I’m listening to some Shostakovitch as I am writing this, but might be listening to some rock in an hour from now.
When I was younger, I enjoyed action movies, and was a fan of James Bond. My perspectives on movies changed while I was at university and saw a film of the French director Claude Lelouch, La belle histoire. It made me discover what cinema could be. I don’t care much about the current Hollywood production, although I did see the first of the Star Trek reboot and eventually would like to see the most recent Star Wars. But mostly, I appreciate classic works, like those of Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Wells. I am a big fan of Woody Allen and of some contemporary French and French Canadian directors (Klapisch, Jaoui, Arcand, …).
I used to read a lot when I was living in Paris, during the commute. I now cycle or walk to work, which is great but means that I don’t have time to read as much as I would like. I recently read and much enjoyed the books of Graeme Simsion The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect. I mourned the recent passing away of Umberto Eco. As with movies, I also have an interest in science fiction and appreciate greats like Douglas Adams, Philip K. Dick, Stanislas Lem, Jules Verne. I also enjoy some cyberpunk and steampunk. Did I mention I have eclectic tastes?
Since an early age, I’ve been fascinated by radio. I remember, on some clear nights, being able to tune into stations coming in from the US. That all seems quaint now, with the internet bringing voices from around the world with just a few clicks. But I still love the spoken word and listen to many podcasts. A couple of scientific ones I would like to recommend: The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, and Quirks and Quarks. The latter is a radio program of the CBC, hosted by Bob MacDonald, who is the best science interviewer I have ever heard.