March 29, 2016

A Long Way Gone

I graduated with a master's degree a couple of months ago. Even though I have neglected this blog in recent years and I still don't feel like a real geophysicist, technically graduation marked the end of the Long Way to Go. My blog used to be an important part of the path I had started in 2007 and I therefore decided to conclude this chapter with one last entry.

I created A Long Way to Go at the beginning of my sophomore year in 2008, which however feels much longer ago after everything that has happened in these seven and a half years. Looking back at the very first entry, I intended to simply describe my way from a student to a geophysicist. I never had been a fan of diaries, but at that time I discovered a completely new world and I felt the urge to share my highs and lows with an audience for whom I hoped my words somehow might be helpful. I don't know how successful I was with that, but the blog certainly helped me to process my experiences. Further, I met some amazing people whom I probably wouldn't have get to know without it.

Those who have followed my blog over the years saw how I took a pretty long detour with my education and career. I finished in the top five percent of my program of the last three years, but due to the long time gap since my last exams, graduation felt much more like the belated fullfilment of an old duty than a reason for celebration. I could be somewhere else - maybe better, maybe worse - if I had kept my focus entirely on my studies, but I never felt like this was the mark I wanted to leave behind. I strive to leave places in a better shape than I came across them and I thought I could combine this idealism with an efficient progress towards graduation - and it actually worked quite well for many years - but in the end it just wasn't meant to be. Either way, even though most of my projects and their accomplishments appear more like footprints on a beach which get slowly washed away, I would go for them again without hesitation. I have come to terms with myself that their real value doesn't lie in a preferably long existence, but in the good memories of the people who experienced and enjoyed them.

I can't tell yet if I am going join the chorus of those who refer to their studies as the best time of their lives because I enrolled at university from Johann Gottfried Herder High School. My time at high school was an amazing and formative period for me because we constantly supported and pushed each other to simply become better. Unfortunately, I rarely found this healthy competition at Freie Universität Berlin and I'm not even talking about absolute quality but the desire for relative improvement, individually and as a group. I lost my romantic view of academia pretty fast, but it took me a quite a while and many conversations with students and professionals from other countries to realize that this wasn't about a single university. Complacency is omnipresent. In contrast to the often frustrating daily grind, so much more intensive and memorable were the moments with the few people who shared the desire to excel and achieve something by doing more than what is necessary. They brought out the absolute best in me and regardless of how many things have changed, I am deeply grateful for what I learned from them and achieved with them. I will remember that for good.

In retrospect, the toughest challenge in all these years was my exposure to the transient nature of friendships, family, love, and life itself. In the face of farewell all the nonsense on which we are spending most of our energy became completely irrelevant. However, two years ago after I had lost almost everyone who had been giving me strength and everything I had believed in, in the end I even lost the faith in myself and joy over what I was doing. I was just waiting for the final nail in the coffin and came pretty close to quitting the geosciences. I can't really explain what happened, but everything came down to a mixture of defiance and awareness of why I had chosen this path in the first place. My priorities have changed, but today I am glad I rediscovered my self-esteem and have continued to follow my personal long way to go towards all the things I still want to see and achieve.

December 21, 2013

Milow - Born in the Eighties

What a wonderful song and what powerful lines these are:

The trick to forget the bigger picture is when
You look at everything in close-up
As often as you can
Our revolution is covered in mold
There's only so much that you can control
This is no anthem becasue anthems are proud
And pride isn't something that this is about
I shouldn't care shouldn't care
But I do and that's sometimes
Too hard to bear
Still walking the same road
With my schoes full of holes
Just waiting for something that we can control

December 01, 2013

An Insidious Alienation

To this day, I remember a conversation that I held with a former fellow student of mine in late 2011. We were talking about our backgrounds when I told him that I was born in Dresden in the former German Democratic Republic. He looked stunned and said: "You are from East Germany? But you are so clever!" I took his statement as the compliment it was, but subtly I still got a lump in my throat, which hasn't left me ever since and got me thinking. Why? 26 years ago, I was born into a socialist regime that had denied its citizens freedom of travel and freedom of speech for almost 40 years. I would think and talk in a different way if I hadn't been raised by a set of inalienable values and a knowledge about how many hopes and dreams my family simply was not allowed to realize without either parrotting a hollow doctrine or endangering our lives. If the world hadn't politically and socially changed in the meantime, I wouldn't have experienced any of the moments with all the people on my way that I've kept as heart-warming memories. The bottom line is a very depressing and yet relieving feeling of how close my whole generation has been to living a totally different life to the one we have.

I didn't choose the society into which I was born, but it is because of this background, which sadly still seems to be a pretty big thing for many people in both east and west, that today I'm a proud citizen of a somewhat free western society. Germany is a paradisiac country with beautiful landscapes, timeless architecture, matchless literature, delicious cuisine, and dig-nitaries who enjoy highest reputation all over the world. Most foreigners credit me with the stereotypical, but generally positive attributes they have in mind when it comes to my native country. The funny thing is that you only realize how much of this stereotypical German you actually are once you get out of the little habitat and start to experience the diversity of our planet and its people. Without an insight into what is going on, we could stop here and this country would be an almost dreamlike place, but if you take a moment and think about it, the description of German paradise in which I can go where I want to go, do what I want to do, and say what I want to say, sounds somehow just a little bit too good. In a world of hunger, political oppression, and religious persecution in many countries all around the world, we as a people and especially our scientists still live an unbelievably comfortable life in a pretty consolidated nation, but if you dare to take a look behind the shiny facades, you see count-less flaws. They are the reason why in the course of all the events that affected me both per-sonally and professionally over the last few years I've often been feeling like an alien in a society sharing something with me that I call home.

Back in high school, I strongly hoped for the sake of our society that social viruses such as disrespect, bullying, jealousy, hypocrisy, greed, and xenophobia would be gone among uni-versity students and academics. That was an overoptimistic hope you might say because now that I'm in my mid-twenties and a deep-rooted member of that academic part of our society, I've learned that everyone who thinks that intellect helps people to overcome their fears and spiritual abysses is simply naive. Albert Einstein said a great thing: "Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: It is character." People are people and often those with the brightest minds are the weakest and by that the worst because they are likely to come to power and then their actions cause even more damages especially on all those who cannot draw mental strength from the injustice they suffer. Nevertheless, you always have a choice and in this spirit back then my classmates and I were taught that some ten years down the road we could have developed our potential and especially our motivation into skills to be the driving forces in creating a better world for everyone.

The belief in the necessity of not only becoming active but also spreading this attitude is where the IGSC 2013 vision of Inspiring Change came from. I put into words to what I had committed myself and I appreciate how it has been adopted by others. In favor of the reali-zation of this vision, I got used to those who looked for dishonest motives in my words be-cause I think that this simply is one of the negative side effects that await you if you expose your views to the public. And though it just felt terribly wrong how some also repeatedly doubted and vilified members of the team or the project itself, in the end any conflict is just as redundant as the truth can be worthless if people don't want to realize that actions are the expression of love for our community and not hatred for others. Seriously, what kind of hatred should I have for those calling me delusional because I saw and still see more in them than what meets the eye? I didn't manage to realize everything I wanted to change for my community, but I've kept every single one of my personal and professional promises. Yet, I'm not sure whether I should be happy or sad that there isn't a single person all over Europe who wants to challenge the bar we raised to a level to be awarded the best in the world. It's a mixed feeling of being both a blessing and a curse within a much bigger scope than initially intended.

All the sacrifices and emotions on the way to 25 April 2013 and especially the knowledge that for me this day towards which I had been working almost obsessively for the last two years was meant to become the arguably loneliest of them all were and still are hard to handle, but it was my loss of faith in the whole community which brought me very close to leaving the geosciences for good. When it comes to my scientific home on a national level, I'm deeply concerned about a society which gets eroded by an insidious alienation. It's the society president questioning whether a real geophysicist should also be interested in the other geosciences because they are pretty much nothing to him. It's the professor suddenly keeping a disgustingly awkward distance once he found out that the critical guy in the suit wasn't an extremely young postdoc. It's the student prognosticating that the crappy geo-physicists would fail brutally. Regardless of any personal agony, the problem is that the people behind these examples are not isolated negative phenomena, but just three of the many influential spearheads from all geoscience disciplines and levels of expertise at univer-sities, research institutes, companies, and societies in a seriously ill German geoscientific community.

Most people don't want to hear that and on the one hand I can understand them because it's an extremely uncomfortable view on our mistakes and future challenges. On the other hand, I know that I'm far from being alone. It's only unfortunate that the vast majority of those who are aware of the situation and as worried as I am tend to avoid open conflict by staying silent and retreating into their ivory towers. I cannot deny that speaking out on the situation brings a lot of trouble for the individual, but while we may cherish the few oases in the big desert, how true is our love for our sciences and our community if we let the rest be this big desert? Some may live that way but I cannot. I rather self-destruct myself in trying to change some-thing than living on the misery of others because that is nothing but running down the clock. People so often ridiculed, insulted, and criminalized me for the things I had prefigured. All of them have come true. So trust me when I say that in time even the most livable oasis will run out breath of life if the world around is drying up. So what can we do about it? How can we inspire change? I genuinely believe that my projects are a good approach to offer alternatives to given structures, but unfortunately I don't have an all-encompassing solution for the major problems.

We are one big German geoscience community with lots of scientific and social challenges ahead and yet way too many of us act like we are worlds apart. We love to celebrate an imaginary socio-intellectual superiority to everyone and everything around: students, colle-agues, working groups, departments, universities, cities, federal states, countries. This ne-gative attitude demoralizes and scares many off, both young and old, both from within and the outside. I've seen how it changed people for the worse and while I've made myself a name for my almost unlimited belief in this community and its people, I ask myself more and more why I'm still trying to encourage developments that include each and everyone when an in-depth purge is what we actually need. If I had to break it down to one advice then it's that all of us (re)learn to hold out our hands and concentrate our efforts on those who are unspoiled, willing and capable of doing not only well but also good beyond their personal interest. Frankly speaking, I have met very few of this kind, but then again if that wasn't so rare, we wouldn't have all these problems in the first place.

October 22, 2012

More Than a Game

In two weeks from now, the 2012 SEG Challenge Bowl Finals will feature the possibly best list of competitors in the seven-year history of the event. Colorado School of Mines, University of Oklahoma, University of Calgary, Imperial College ... just to name some of them ... and then there is Freie Universität Berlin. The pure fact that we will be among these prestigious universities and compete against them makes me get goosebumps every single time I think of it.

For me, these finals are more than a game for some personal award, but a golden opportunity to represent my community. I have worked for that moment every single day in the last years. I clearly remember my international beginnings at the 80th SEG Annual Meeting in Denver and how people looked puzzled when I told them that I was studying geological sciences in Berlin. Having to explain that we actually have quite good geoscience programs and excellent graduates here in the German capital city is not the best way to gain confidence as an undergraduate student. However, I rose above. Since these days, a lot has changed about how the international geoscience community sees Berlin and what we do here. And I take pride that I could substantially contribute to this development because, despite all criticism, it makes me know that I've chosen the right path.

It's an overwhelming feeling to know that this long path will have its grand finale and happy ending next April here in Berlin, but having the last but one highlight at the SEG Annual Meeting in Las Vegas is pretty awesome, too. Is there any better place in the world to philosophize about the odds than Las Vegas? Probably not, but frankly speaking, I don't care whether it's 1:9, 1:11, 1:100 or whatsoever. Just like the header says, never let yourself be second best. That is not just a catchy line, but really means a lot to me. People have told me that we should simply enjoy the finals without any specific expectations. They might think that way because nobody likes to underachieve high expectations. However, I will never share that way of thinking. Nobody remembers second places. Against all odds, we're certainly not going to go to Las Vegas to just be background actors with an excellent view from the stage ... come hell or high water.

September 22, 2012

Quo vadis?

An honorary office is a fulfilling duty, but not always a grateful business. From time to time people ask me what meaningful things I'm going to do for my career after I will have finished "all that honorary stuff" on which I spent so much time. Whenever I'm getting asked that kind of question with exactly this undertone, I simply smile and give them a meaningless answer to honor the so-called meaningless things on which I spent so much time. These situations make me realize how way too many people give away their happiness for things they don't even want to do but consider as expected by society. 

Every morning on my way to university, I see thousands of grumpy people in a rush to get from their homes to their workplaces as fast as possible. I can literally see people's discomfort on their faces because they desperately want to avoid any contact with all the other stressed out people out there. Sometimes I even find myself doing the same thing - earplugs in, music on, browsing on my smartphone just to escape all that negative energy. And it's pretty much the same, maybe even worse, with reversed directions on my way back home in the evening. Day in, day out. Whenever I see people grumble about a packed train or race down an escalator just to arrive in time wherever they think they have to, I ask myself whether that's what we're supposed to live for or whether that's what we have to go through in order to get what we want in life. Either way, I don't think so. And still these attitudes and excessive demands seem to be mass phenomena. Or should we rather call them plagues?

Even in geoscientific spheres, both industry and academia, most people are in a crazy rush to reach the next degree, publish the next paper or get the next salary increase. Some unwritten laws dictate them that this is the only way to become good scientists. Many say that's what any career is all about - deliver, outperform, succeed. And from a businessman point of view, I have to admit that they're actually right, but while all these accomplishments help you to climb the career ladder, they absolutely don't tell anything about how you grow as a human being and about how happy you are with your life. I've met professors and highly experienced industry professionals who had the social skills of a hillbilly. And I've met undergraduates who were totally happy and knew much more about the meaning of life and happiness than any young professional or postdoc.

It almost feels like someone is pushing fast-forward on that hustle all around me so that I can enjoy my progress in slow motion. It's strange because the me who started this blog four years ago wouldn't have appreciated this attitude at all, but this is how time changes people. I'm happy to be at the right place in the right time and I take pride in saying that, especially because of SGS, the Berlin-Brandenburg Metropolitan Region surely is one of the hot spots for young geoscientists these days. Support is great and gets better with every day, but I'd wish that the geoscience community and its decision makers saw the full potential of what we are doing as a group of students for our generation, for future generations and for the geosciences as a whole. I know that some - including me - would like to continue this work as professionals, but in regard to the status quo, unfortunately this reality is more than a lifetime away. Frankly speaking, appreciation and admiration don't feed families. As long as the majority rates this work as an exemplary add-on to meaningful normal business and not as an absolute must for social and scientific prosperity, it will always be a sacrificial mission to which only a few young people will agree to commit their spare time or even their careers and lives.

For quite some time I've been considering my future and in what ways I could contribute the most to what and whom I believe in. More and more, I can't deny that after everything we will have accomplished by next summer, for me there won't be anything left here in Berlin I could motivate myself for to keep my working temperature. Especially after an event like the IGSC 2013, it will be literally impossible for me to go back from 24/7 to normal under the circum-stances we have created here. Therefore, I've decided to leave Germany with the end of my final contract as a teaching fellow at Freie Universität Berlin on 31 August 2013. Our planet is a big office for a young geoscientist and businessman with a special background like mine and there are a couple of great people I'd like to work with. So time will reveal the right spot for me to do some meaningful or not so meaningful things ...