Imagine that you gathered together all the sunlight that falls on the earth and concentrated it all at the end of a single hair. That beam would still be weaker than the laser beams that Professor Mattias Marklund uses in his research at the Department of Physics at Chalmers University of Technology.
But leading expertise and inquisitiveness are not enough. Cinnamon buns are also a necessity for truly successful research.
“Almost every research project has begun with elevenses,” says Mattias Marklund, who is also the Head of the department’s theoretical physics division.
“Informal, spontaneous meetings lead to excellent discussions where ideas flow freely. That’s a big part of the way my group works, and we have a long line-up of ideas in the pipeline.”
Calculations that require pen, paper and pastry
Over the years, pastry-fuelled chats have contributed to scientific breakthroughs in everything from rogue waves to particle acceleration. For example, Marklund and his colleagues have discovered a whole new way of using lasers to accelerate ions. In the long term, the new method could make it possible to provide advanced cancer treatments to far more people than today. Currently, he and his team are working to develop a new way to create strong X-rays.
But caffeine and cakes are not only essential to the conception of a project. A theoretical physicist can often require hours of uninterrupted calculations in the company of nothing but pen and paper. Preferably at Alström’s pastry shop and coffee house, if Marklund has a say. And he does. About once a week he lets his thoughts coalesce over a tasty cake or Danish.
“Ask me anything about baked goods, I know it all,” Marklund says he guides us to the delectable treats behind the shop’s glass counter. He’s even coined the phrase “I snack – therefore I science”... Or perhaps vice versa.
Today, on the advice of the salesperson, he chooses the raspberry gâteau. Trust is important. Today he’s a bit nervous about a coming conference. He is one of 50 selected plasma physicists in the world who are going to meet in an Italian monastery. Oh, he’s not worried about his expertise or the company – just whether or not the monastery will have good cakes for the coffee breaks…
Concerned about democracy issues and independent research
But really, it’s not the sugar intake that concerns him, but the social debate, democracy issues and how important it is for research to be independent.
“Society must trust its scientists. Increasing political control is dangerous, as we’ve seen in the United States and Hungary, where scientists have a gag order regarding things that don’t fit the political agenda. Independent research is a necessity to strengthen democracy. Alongside research and teaching, we in the academic world have a very important task – to make sure that society learns about new knowledge.”
Marklund himself often participates in contexts where academia meets the public, for example science festivals and discussion threads in social media.
“There are many ways to make knowledge available and give back to the community. It’s important to participate in discussions on the issues and to make suggestions for improvements instead of just complaining. The perception of being ‘us and them’ is always dangerous, no matter what the situation. What’s needed is to understand each other’s agendas. Maybe we need more coffee-house chats to get us there.”
More about Mattias Marklund
Born: 1970 in Skellefteå – the gem of West Bothnia.
Lives: In Mölndal.
Family: Wife and two children.
Job: Professor of physics at Chalmers University of Technology and Head of the theoretical physics division.
Career in brief: Four years’ upper-secondary school technical programme at Balderskolan, Skellefteå. Bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Umeå University, where he later earned his doctoral degree in theoretical physics in 1998. He worked at the University of Cape Town and the Swedish Defence Research Agency before becoming a research assistant at Chalmers in 2000. After four years at Chalmers, he returned to Umeå University, where he was employed as an associate professor. Two years later, in 2006, he became the university’s youngest professor. When his wife got a job in Gothenburg, he returned to the west coast, and since 2013 Marklund has been a professor at the Department of Physics at Chalmers.
Leisure: Trains in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, takes photographs, enjoys coffee and buns, and spends time with his family.
Favourite places for inspiration: Alström’s pastry shop and coffee house. Once a week I sit down there to think in peace and work undisturbed.
Most proud of: I have difficulty feeling pride in what I do, but I’m proud to be able to work with such good people who are so incredibly good at what they do.
Motivation: To understand how the world works. As the physicist Richard Feynman said, “Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”
First memory of physics: I’ve always been interested in chemistry, explosives and aerodynamics. I don’t come from an academic home, but I’ve always loved finding systems in things. I’m also absurdly fond of algebra. When I was in upper-secondary school, I checked out a book on differential geometry at Skellefteå public library. I had quite an epiphany when I realised that it has applications in physics, like the general relativity theory.
Best thing about being a scientist: The freedom to control my own work, learning new things, doing what I’m good at and building new knowledge.
Challenges of the job: All the reports, assessments and measurements that need to be done. And staying awake in the afternoons, because I get up so early.
Dream for the future: I hope that the younger scientists I work with will be successful. My own dream is to always follow my curiosity.
Photo: Henrik Sandsjö (photo 1), Mia Halleröd Palmgren (photo 2)