Published: 13.05.09
Wednesday Column

Are you sitting comfortably?

Jürg Fröhlich
Jürg Fröhlich, ETH-Zurich Professor of Theoretical Physics. (Photo: H. Hostettler, D-PHYS)
Jürg Fröhlich, ETH-Zurich Professor of Theoretical Physics. (Photo: H. Hostettler, D-PHYS)

Who hasn’t experienced the occasional bout of writer’s block when you want to put something down on paper, only to find yourself staring at a blank page, freshly sharpened pencil in hand!? The best thing to do in cases like this is to sit down in a comfy armchair for a while, relax and take a minute to work out exactly what it is you want to say and, indeed, whether you actually have anything to say at all – which is seldom the case, as anyone who is used to studying publications (in other words scientific texts) will confirm.

I recommend all key personnel and people holding positions of responsibility – i.e. all of us – to use a comfy armchair regularly, but for different reasons. An extremely valuable commodity, the very availability of which makes us human, is increasingly getting lost in the post-modern world: time! We have to get into the habit of taking – or rather snatching – the time to step back from ourselves and everyday stress by sitting down in a comfy armchair or going on a walk through the forest in spring, maybe even missing a meeting. Feynman refers to this as the “principle of active irresponsibility”.

This suddenly gives you a bird’s-eye view of yourself, and the problems that once seemed to tower in front of you no longer look quite so menacing from above. You start to ask yourself what is going well and what is not, how and where you waste too much time, what you should pursue with more enthusiasm and energy, and what you would be better off leaving be; the good and bad decisions you have made, whether you have been able to muster up enough civil courage to do something that might well have been unpopular but which had to be done all the same; whether you have had the guts to own up to the mistakes you have made, and whether you learned from them; whether you have remained honest and fair, and whether you have fulfilled your obligations and responsibilities. You also see whether you appreciate the importance and potential of your own specialty and activities or conversely, as is common nowadays in our medial and commercialized world, you tend to over exaggerate them externally vis-à-vis your colleagues or the public (even though you might often lie awake at night, disheartened by the relative insignificance of your own actions). Self-critical reflection exercise and leisure time in the comfort of an armchair without quantifiable results does not diminish your feeling of self-esteem; it reinforces it! It inoculates us against hypocrisy and alienation, and produces lifeblood, out of which truly original ideas, insights, knowledge and gutsy actions can grow.

The world of today, with its cries for increased efficiency, autonomy, lifelong flexibility, mobility and openness to all possible changes and reforms, is pilfering our time and thus our freedom, creativity and humanity, enslaving us in all manner of sophisticated ways. As a professor, examples of this might be all those emails you spend so much of your working time on, the search for information on the Internet that frequently ends with you being inundated with information that is not altogether reliable, all those questionnaires that need filling out; the reports you have to draft, knowing fully well that no one is going to read them; the responsibility of finding the cheapest health insurance and most reasonably priced telecommunications provider, not to mention explaining your own situation to the Publica, which changes from year to year anyhow; this or that public lecture, which you end up giving to appease your bad conscience for not having done enough PR work, complete with a Power Point presentation that overwhelms the audience with an excess of dry facts, without really imparting any meaningful ideas and concepts – as is the case nowadays at many colloquium lectures and seminars given by speakers from all over the world. More often than not, they have so little time for their performance that they have to be flown in, which does not do the CO2–levels in the atmosphere any good. You then proceed to dine with them once and pretend to have had a few interesting discussions with them. A couple of weeks down the line, though, and you can barely even remember what they had been talking about.

We don’t have time to read publications any more, either. The publication of a good result is no guarantee that anyone will notice it. No, you have to talk about it at the right conferences – which, of course, you have flown to – and encourage your colleagues to quote you. People publish papers in Nature, Science and PRL, not so much in the hope that someone will read it, but rather because it looks good.

We expect short-sighted managers, despondent Federal councilors and many other people in positions of responsibility, including the education sector, to take on workloads that do not leave them any time at all for sitting in comfy armchairs. Who can blame them for not showing the high level of foresight or not performing quite as well as we have come to expect from them? They are slaves to their “monster jobs” – but that’s a story for another day!

Anyway, I really wanted to talk about armchairs here, not the “professor with chair”. Whilst the latter is just as important to me as the former, I’m sure it is not all that comfortable and not exactly intended for self-critical reflection exercises. I recommend any chair-holder to also invest in an armchair! After all, “Prima di essere ingegneri voi siete uomini(F. De Sanctis).

About the author

Jürg Fröhlich is one of ETH Zurich’s true “homegrown talents”. He was born in Schaffhausen in 1946, went to grammar school and completed his school leaving exams in 1965. He studied physics and mathematics at ETH Zurich from 1965 to 1969, writing his final year dissertation under Klaus Hepp and Robert Schrader. In 1972, he completed a PhD, also under Klaus Hepp at ETH Zurich, with his dissertation on the infrared problem in quantum field theory. Fröhlich then traveled for a number of years, which took him to Geneva, Harvard University, Princeton and the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques near Paris, before finally returning to ETH Zurich to take up a position there in 1982. His main areas of interest are quantum field theory and quantum theory in large systems, the mathematical treatment of phase transitions, and mathematical methods of theoretical physics. During his long career as a professor at ETH Zurich, he also founded the “Center for Theoretical Studies”. Fröhlich has won several science awards and is a member of three academies. He is married, has two daughters and six grandchildren.