Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thomas and the Swiss Coffee Break

A few years ago, in October of 2011, I traveled to Switzerland along with my graduate research adviser, Alexis Templeton, and then lab-mate Emily Knowles. We had flown to the land of fine chocolates, melted cheeses, secretive banks, and elegant watches to conduct some x-ray spectroscopy research at the Paul Scherrer Institute's synchrotron particle accelerator, The Swiss Light Source (SLS). 

SLS is a pretty funky place. There's a particle accelerator ring where a variety of magnets are used to shoot electrons along the ring's 288 meters (about 945 feet) of circumference at 2.8 billion electronvolts (2.8 GeV)! There are a bunch of experimental end-station, called beamlines (instrumental setups that use x-ray beams produced by the electrons), for doing stuff like protein crystallography, x-ray tomography, x-ray absorption spectroscopy, and a range of materials science and geochemistry work. 

The work being conducted at SLS is pretty awesome, but maybe of more interest to some folks is that the place itself looks like a flying saucer landing in a field in thee Swiss countryside!

SLS is the flying saucer on the top right in this image of the Paul Scherrer Institute 
I'm not really writing this post about the SLS, awesome though it is. I'm writing this post to share a story about something that happened to me while we were there all those years ago. This is a story of a coffee break. Or maybe it's the story of a coffee break that never was. You decide.

Our work at the SLS involved the use of the X07MA/B PHOENIX beamline, where we were using microscale x-ray fluorescence and x-ray absorption spectroscopy to map the distributions and types of sulfur compounds in Emily's samples of altered basalt and my samples from the Arctic. That kind of work can become quite tiring and delirium easily sets in when you've been working for hours upon hours to collect data at a synchrotron. Luckily, there was a small cafe in the building adjacent to the SLS. I made quite a large number of stops to that cafe to drop a Swiss Franc or two to pick up a boost to keep me going while I continued slogging through x-ray data collection and beamline data processing. 

There are two interesting things that I learned about having coffee in Europe during that trip. Thing One: Europeans serve coffee in very little cups. Thing Two: if a European invites you to "go get a coffee", they mean they'd like to sit down, relax, and talk while slowly sipping a cup of coffee. Let me explain.
This is NOT how coffee is served in Europe

Thing One: Europeans haven't gone overboard with trying to "supersize" everything the way that Americans have. In general, in Europe, if you order a coffee you are very likely to get something that is 4 or 6 fluid ounces of coffee in a very small cup. I've had plenty of European friends who claim that this is because their coffee is so strong, and, in some cases, that's true. 

There are a lot of places in Europe where ordering a coffee means you're pretty much getting a shot of espresso. However, that hasn't been my general experience in most cases. Most of the times when I have ordered a coffee in Europe it has been just a regular drip coffee in a little cup. It's not the 20 fluid ounces of joe that we Americans tend to inhale as part of our morning rituals. 

At the time when I was working at SLS, I was still fairly deep into my academic-driven addiction of coffee. Needless to say, I drank little cup after little cup of coffee while in Switzerland on that trip.

"This just will not do!"

Thing Two: Here's the thing that motivated me to write this post. I made a bit of a coffee faux pas while on this trip, and the experience taught me a deeper lesson about myself and about the culture of my nation.

During one of the longer bouts of wrestling with data analysis and trying to figure out how to proceed when things seemed to be going all kinds of wrong, there came a moment of sangfroid amongst those of us working the beamline. Dr. Thomas Huthwelker, the beamline scientist who operates the PHOENIX beamline and helps users to figure out stuff, had shown up to, well, operate the beamline and help us users figure out some stuff. We got a small break in the action as things started working well again. At that point, Thomas (pronounced kind of like "Toe-Mahs") asked if any of us would like to go get a coffee. I was feeling like I could use yet another boost at that point so I decided to join him.

We walked to the cafe, where I dropped my Swiss Franc for a little itty-bitty cup of coffee and waited by the door for Thomas. I figured we'd grab the coffee and head back to the beamline to continue working on the next problem. I then saw Thomas coming out of the cashier's line. He had a little tray with a pastry on it and his little cup of coffee. He looked at me and I heard him go "oh!" and then he said, "I'm going to have a seat for a moment, if you don't mind." I honestly didn't mind, but rather than join him (which would have been the appropriate and probably more enjoyable thing to do) I walked back to the beamline to slug down that coffee in two sips (seriously, those coffee cups are really small) and continue working.

Why didn't I think to take that coffee break as an actual break? Why didn't I choose to join Thomas for a short sit and some time to think about anything other than work? Because I come from a nation where we're too often taking our coffee and our food to-go so that we don't have to take any time away from work. As a graduate student, I'm made to feel guilty whenever I'm not doing work (grad school is seriously depressing). I grew up with the ingrained thought that productivity means always being "on" and rarely taking a break. We Americans can get shit done, but we've honestly taken it too far when it comes to work. We don't have a culture that values a work/life balance. And that is a huge problem.

My missed coffee break with Thomas in Switzerland all those years ago taught me to stop every now and then and take a break out of work to sit and relax. Sometimes it's good to walk away from work and not give a shit about the fact that the work is still there. We as a nation need to work harder to remove the drive-thru mentality from our lives. 

I'm now at a point where I'm working about 60-80 hours a week on my graduate work. I have very little of a social life because, well, because grad school sucks and is a necessary evil that needs to be entirely restructured. With all of the work that I'm doing of late, I need to remind myself now more than ever to take a breaks, often. It should be possible to stay on top of our work without entirely losing ourselves and not stopping to think sometimes "hey, a few minutes out right now won't hurt anything". Admittedly, right now I wouldn't mind meeting up with Thomas again and having a break over some very little cups of coffee.

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