Published 5 July 2012 by Markus Pössel

Before the master class: Josh Dillon

The Lindau meetings have certain traditions – the polonaise comes to mind; the exclusivity (laureates and young researchers only!) of the afternoon discussion sessions; the boat ride. But now and again, Lindau tries something new. From 2010, I remember an "inverse panel", with Nobel laureates interviewing a panel of young researchers instead of the other way around. That doesn’t appear to have caught on. This year, there are "master classes". I’ll get to witness one of them on Thursday: the one organized by George Smoot on "Cosmology and Astrophysics: Gamma Ray Bursts and Galaxies". I have no idea what to expect (although Kelly’s report from the Fert master class gives some clues – but then, each Nobel laureate probably has his own version of this event). So I met beforehand with Josh Dillon, who is one of the grad students participating in the class.

MP: I gather from the participant list that you’re a graduate student at MIT. What are you working on?

JD: I study cosmology in the group of Max Tegmark. We’re interested in mapping the early universe with what is known as 21 cm radiation. It’s emitted by neutral hydrogen, ordinary hydrogen atoms. It’s one of the only ways to
have access to the universe after the cosmic background radiation was released, but before galaxies started to form. That’s our long-range goal; a more intermediate goal is to see how the universe went from being neutral to being ionized, during what is called the epoch of re-ionization. That’s also what I’ll be talking about at the master class.

MP: How did you get to Lindau?

JD: My department chair sent me an e-mail asking if I was interested in attending this conference. He asked my advisor to write me a recommendation, and I applied. There were a number of different stages; it was fairly complicated: we had to apply to get nominated by the US, and then get accepted to the conference.

MP: So how did you get selected for the master class?

JD: After I was accepted, we got a whole bunch of e-mails from the organizers. One of them asked whether I was interested in taking part in a master class. I thought I might as well try, since I was only required to give a very short talk, and it seemed a good way to meet a Nobel laureate in my field. It wasn’t a long application: one page.

MP: So what is the master class? I have no idea!

JD: That’s a good question. It’s a bit vague. I’d never heard of any session called a master class in any context other than music. We were told it was to be a five to ten minute talk, so I don’t think I am expected to teach a class, which would have been a lot more challenging! I managed to have lunch with George Smoot and a bunch of other laureates today, and we talked a bit over lunch. I think he envisions this more as a way for people to talk about their research, but also for people who are interested in astrophysics more generally to get a broader sense of what is going on in fields that aren’t exactly their own.

MP: So what are your impressions of Lindau so far?

JD: It’s been a really cool conference. There are many opportunities to engage with other students. I’d never before met so many people who are at my age, and are doing astrophysics, outside my university. And it’s been neat to meet people from other countries. People are very friendly, and very willing to go out on a limb a little bit, introduce themselves and just make contact.

MP: Have you had much contact with the laureates so far?

JD: I sat at Brian Schmidt’s table at the International Get-Together. The discovery that Brian Schmidt and his colleagues made – Dark energy – is a great part of what inspired me to go into this field. We talked about a lot of things. Interestingly, a lot of the discussion was unrelated to physics. There were several Americans and several Germans at the table. We talked about international politics, and history; Schmidt talked about his winery and wine in general, as we drank some wine.

I had, in fact, gone to an earlier discussion session with him where he talked about some of his future projects. It was also interesting to learn that he had a hard time getting a job – this was right before he got involved in the project that eventually discovered Dark energy. He said at one point that he was three weeks away from leaving the field, and that he would either do something he was passionate about, or leave the field. I haven’t been in that position yet, but it certainly gives me pause. But he also pointed out that the unemployment rate for physicists is some absurdly low number!

Well, I still have a few more years before I really have to think about what to do next. But being here is great, because it reminds me of all the really cool stuff that’s going on and can go on in the future. I’m passionate about what I do, and I want to devote my life to study physics; being here is a useful – recharge of that passion!

MP: Many thanks for the interview, and I look forward to hearing your talk at the master class!

Markus Pössel