Interesting the country may be, but I knew next to nothing about Finland before I went there on my fellowship. The names of some Finnish music groups and my awareness that the country did very well in the PISA studies – that was about the sum total of my expertise. As a matter of fact, the prospect of long dark winters way up north even argued against this destination. The big attraction, however, was the possibility to work with Robert van Leeuwen.
I met Robert some years ago at a conference. Having listened to a moderately successful presentation on my part, he then took time to point out a few mistakes to a somewhat rueful doctoral student of physics. Although the unambiguous result of our several hours of discussion should have left me depressed rather than cheerful, our conversation was very constructive and motivating. Hence, the idea to join his research team after acquiring my degree came readily to mind. Then as now, my research focuses on many-particle physics. The fundamental question in this wide-ranging field is the following: “How can you find (approximate) solutions to the quantum-mechanical equations of motion of many interacting particles?” Unfortunately, solutions can be found only for very simple examples, and even then you usually need a super-computer for the computation. The main focus of the current research team lies in developing the theoretical and mathematical bases of this domain.
Luonto – Nature
When my girlfriend and I got off the bus in Jyväskylä (a storm had disrupted the only rail link to Helsinki), it was quite obvious that nature was going to play a much more central role in Finland than in central Europe, and not only because Jyväskylä itself is more lake and forest than town. Nature is the clock that sets the rhythm for life in Finland. In the summer – we were lucky to experience the warmest in history in our first year – the day never really ends and hardly anyone stays in the town on weekends. Whoever can do so goes off to their mökki – their summer cottage – for fishing, going to the sauna or simply enjoying nature. You get a real sense of Finland in summer only when you have spent a few days in a mökki far from civilization; no running water, no sanitary installations, but many midges. In winter, on the other hand, nature freezes into a sparkling palace of ice, and the snow glitters when the sun peeps over the horizon at noon. You also learn to love the national sanctuary of the Finns – the sauna – at outside temperatures as low as minus 35°C. We were deeply impressed by both extremes. If you don’t turn into a nature lover in Finland you probably never will.
Ihmiset – The people
Even if nature is undoubtedly Finland’s most striking feature, the people and Finnish society are just as interesting. Both at university and in daily life you quickly learn that the Finns take privacy very seriously. Not looking at someone or not saying hello may often be considered the more polite option. It is not surprising, therefore, that the typical Finn is not an extrovert – something you soon also realize during classes. Students prefer to send questions by email or discuss them later in private rather than asking them during class. On the other hand, Finnish universities (and saunas) represent a classless society. You use the familiar type of address with everyone, and in general you feel no difference between professors and students. People teach and work on an equal footing. The often cumbersome sense of hierarchy at German-language universities is something you will not find in this country. The Finns are very proud of their school and university system. Education and research are held in high regard both by politicians and by society at large.
Tutkimus – Research
The second largest university of the country (about 16,000 students) where I work has a very international outlook. This is reflected by a rather colourful mix in the research team. English is the main language, both in research (my Finnish is coming along very slowly) and in the classroom. The lack of hierarchy makes for a very informal and constructive atmosphere in the group. Everyone can propose new ideas for him- and herself or for others and follow their own interests. The successful track record vindicates the beneficial effect of this relaxed atmosphere.
You are not only free in your research but also in organizational terms, which meant I could even invite a long-standing colleague from Innsbruck University to join our group for a few weeks. I hope this will also contribute to ensuring that my return to the Department of Theoretical Physics back at Innsbruck University will be as successful and agreeable as the time I was allowed to spend in Finland.