Xavier Calmet : 'Scientific intuition is crucial. Either you have it, or you don’t’ – Physics World

Xavier Calmet : ‘Scientific intuition is crucial. Either you have it, or you don’t’ – Physics World

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Xavier Calmet is a professor of physics at the University of Sussex in the UK. His work encompasses a broad “wavefunction” of physics, with a particular focus on quantum gravity and black holes. Calmet is currently working on his first popular-science book about black holes

Xavier Calmet

What skills do you use every day in your job?

My activities involve research, so I have to generate new ideas, do calculations, use computers and form literature. I also work with a team, so some team-management skills are essential.

There’s a lot of creativity involved when you are developing new ideas. This has to be mixed with an understanding of current ones and a vision of how to go beyond that, which requires some scientific intuition. Scientific intuition is crucial. Either you have it, or you don’t. It’s a skill that is hard to acquire.

When you get to senior academic levels, you also have more and more administrative duties, and this involves making other people’s lives in the department as easy as possible.

What do you like best and least about your job?

I’d be lying if I said the best part wasn’t the research. That’s the reason why I’m doing this job. I also tremendously enjoy supervising research projects because that’s when you get one-to-one interactions with young people. You can actually have a real impact on their life, helping them to develop their skills as a researcher. That’s also when they begin to understand whether they want to do this for the rest of their life or not.

This may be a bit controversial, but I used to love teaching because you could be creative in the way you taught your class. Because of the introduction of micromanagement at every level at the universities, there’s less and less freedom in teaching. It’s becoming more and more boring because you just have to do whatever has been done before. You’re not supposed to be creative.

What do you know today that you wish you knew when you were starting out in your career?

When I started, I was told that networking was crucial, and I didn’t believe it. When I was young and naive, I thought, “Let me do excellent research, and I will get a job.” Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works.

Also, excellent research is one thing, but you need to work on the right topics too. The best career advice I was ever given was by a friend of mine who told me that you have to do two kinds of research papers, which he referred to as “crazy” and “mundane”. By “crazy” he meant creative, and by “mundane” he meant mainstream.

If you write papers that are too creative, it takes time for people to realize that they’re good, and other scientists likely won’t read them because they’re not part of their main research activity. So these papers may be very good, but they won’t help you much when it comes to getting a job.

To get grants or to get a job in the first place, you have to write papers that are more mainstream. If you get to an equilibrium between the mundane and crazy papers, that’s when you know you’re part of the game. So that’s something I wish I had known.

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