Political physics

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Thomas Nilsson

It’s fair to say, I think, that Göteborg is a town of excellent viewing spots and one summery Monday morning I learn that Thomas Nilsson’s office is one of them. Prior to his current position as a professor at the Division of Subatomic and Plasma Physics at the Department of Physics at Chalmers, he worked at CERN. Currently, he is heavily involved in building a whole new facility for particle research in Germany. I probably don’t need to convince you that Thomas has a soft spot for large experimental facilities. 

We sit down in Thomas’ office chairs and sip on espressos from his group’s own coffee machine. Thomas teIls me about how he ended up becoming a professor in nuclear physics. He grew up “in the middle of the woods somewhere close to Åmål” and didn’t have any academic traditions in his family. Already in school, physics was one of his favourite subjects, and the decision to study applied physics at Chalmers came about because he sought after a challenge. “It sounded difficult and interesting”, Thomas reflects. And then he reveals something that I have never heard any physics professor say before: He got bored of studying physics. Only when he encountered the world of subatomic physics in a course lead by Björn Jonson did he win back his interest for physics, which eventually tempted him to start an academic career. 

Now he leads a research group, currently consisting of six members, who look for some of the most exotic, short-lived and extreme atomic nuclei. In some cases their findings contribute to understanding the very beginnings of our universe and the origin of heavy elements. Naturally, in order to produce rare subatomic particles you have to go to the biggest of experimental setups, such as CERN in Switzerland or RIBF in Japan. Also, you need to be involved in enormous collaborations. You often even need to build equipment that suit your experiments. 

Investing in the future 

Thomas does all that: A few trips per year to particle accelerator facilities around the world are on his and his group members’ schedule. They engage in a number of collaborations that consist of a few hundred people. And they also build their own detector prototypes, and write programs for data acquisition and analysis that are used around the world. But not just satisfied with that, Thomas is also involved in setting up a whole new research facility called FAIR, which stands for “Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research” in Germany. And he holds nothing less than the position as vice chair of the council, the highest decision-taking organ. And I suddenly understand why Thomas is unusually organised for an academic researcher. Just as an example, his LinkedIn profile is filled in and completely up to date. 

I’m trying to get a glimpse out of the window over the red roofs on Aschebergsgatan without seeming impolite. I wonder why I have never heard of FAIR before talking to Thomas. Planning a facility that has so far required a budget of more than one billion euro and is going to play in the same league as CERN once it’s finished, is an international effort of ten participating countries. “What Thomas does is political physics”, Måns Henningsson, one of his previous colleagues comments later. He seems to be good at that. 

Already before his assignments with FAIR, he has dealed with coordinating large numbers of people with differing interests during his work as a staff researcher at CERN. He was in charge of the physics programme at the ISOLDE experiment for six years before coming back to Chalmers as a researcher. He tells me that there he learned about both the importance of communication and the cultural differences between research groups coming from all over the world. “One of the mistakes you will definitely learn from”, he says, “is scheduling a French group for experiments in July.” 

Working from anywhere 

Thomas’ position and collaborations mean a lot of travelling. “A lot of my work is done at airports”, he tells me. If he is free to choose, he goes to his old family house in Dalsland to work (both on physics and the house) and to relax. He enjoys spending time with his son and “sambo”, despite his high workload his private life has high priority. Just in line with the challenges that he always seems to be looking for in his professional life, Thomas has picked up running as a serious hobby. I must admit that the time he achieved in Göteborgsvarvet this year is admirable. 

When I glance at my phone to check the time, I realise that it has flown by. I haven’t even asked about his Twitter account yet. Thomas explains that he mainly uses it when it is time for “The Physics Day”, an outreach event that he organises once a year within the annual international science festival in Gothenburg. Outreach work is important to Thomas. A few years back he participated in the national science radio programme “Alltinget”, a weekly extra assignment in the evenings that he really enjoyed. And he seems to have as much fun in teaching his master’s course “Modern Subatomic Detection and Analysis Methods” where he has included a study trip to a particle research facility. 

Research politics 

I know it’s time to get up from this comfy chair but we are just in the middle of a discussion about research politics. Which probably is unavoidable when you talk to someone who researches a fundamental subject at a university with a technology focus such as Chalmers. The parameters how to measure success are simply very different in fundamental and application oriented science. One thing that often is underrated in Thomas’ opinion is the importance of specialists. “Not everyone is good at everything”, he concludes. 

So what does Thomas wish for in the future? He definitely hopes that the FAIR project will really kick off soon, he can’t wait for the moment when they start pouring cement in the foundations. Also, he plans for an even better time at Göteborgsvarvet. 


Anna Clemens