The Mediterranean Catalan metropolis of Barcelona is a many-faceted and vibrant city. While it usually makes people think of Gaudi, football, Dali or even Christopher Columbus, theoretical physics, is probably not among the common associations and perhaps not altogether compatible with conventional clichés about Spain. Although I had long harboured the wish after my degree to leave the comfy university of Linz, the Alma Mater Kepleriana, I also considered destinations other than Barcelona at first.
The necessary elements of my research stay came together towards the end of my doctoral studies. The most important point was the subject I was to focus on for the following two years: the quantum-mechanical description of a solid in a magnetic field. For non-physicists this may sound a little quirky, but the fact that there was no satisfactory solution to such a fundamental physics problem would still be disturbing my night’s sleep if I had not been accepted for the Schrödinger Fellowship.
Due to the slightly “exotic” subject matter, what I was looking for in a potential place of research was not so much its specific technical qualification as the presence of a wide range of researchers nearby. Barcelona finally came up through a contact to my future host, Eduardo Hernandez from the Instituto de Ciencia de Materiales de Barcelona (ICMAB). I met Hernandez during a project done in collaboration with my doctoral promoter Eckhard Krotscheck. Both the ICMAB itself and the neighbouring institutes cover a broad range of issues relating to material sciences and solid-state physics and are probably among the most active research places in Europe in these areas. Another important reason for choosing Barcelona is the Chapel Torre Girona in the northern part of the city: it is the home of MareNostrum, one of Europe’s most powerful supercomputers. About halfway through my fellowship family reasons prompted my host to move to Madrid to the “sister institution” ICMM, and I decided to make the move with him. This gave me the opportunity to work at one of the most well-known research centres for graphene – a material we became interested in within the framework of our project. The contact to ICMAB in Barcelona was also maintained after we moved.
Place of Research
With several hundred scientific staff at each, the size of the Spanish research facilities is the most striking difference to Austria. The separation between theoretical physics and experimental physics found in German-speaking countries does not exist here. The institutes tend to be grouped by topic, and experimental researchers and theoreticians are literally next-door neighbours. Both institutions are very international in their outlook – as are the Austrian counterparts. But it was only here that I realised that a whole continent had been missing on my “scientific map of the world”: South America. Many of my new colleagues are from countries such as Cuba, Brazil, Colombia or Puerto Rico. This is due of course to the common language and the cultural similarities, but also to the fact that Spain considers itself Europe’s bridgehead to South America.
Living in Spain
As my decision to go to Spain had been at rather short notice, my prior knowledge of the country and its culture had remained very superficial. Fortunately, the Spaniards are very helpful, and every Spanish region boasts a wealth of traditions and festivals where they take you along for a quick course in the Spanish way of life. At this point an apology is due: Spain consists of 17 autonomous regions with their own culture and history and a total of four different languages – so calling them “the Spaniards” does not do justice to that diversity at all. In Catalonia, the range of exciting traditions includes things such as the popular sport of building “people pyramids” of several meters’ height or the traditional correfoc or “fire run”, which seems more than a little crazy to outsiders. Just picture an organised snow-ball battle with fire crackers in which the entire city takes part, festooned in hoods, ski goggles and scarves. As I moved from Barcelona to Madrid halfway through my stay, I had the opportunity to get to know two different regions: Catalonia and Castile. Through conversations and reading newspaper articles one realises how much the more recent Spanish history differs from that of most other European countries. Becoming a democracy only after the Civil War and the dictatorship of Franco until 1975, Spain democratic tradition is rather young, and the influence of the Franco years is still felt a great deal more in day-to-day politics than, say, the Second World War in Austria.
The scientific result of my stay is satisfying in that is has restored my good night’s sleep. While the problem turned out initially to be more resistant to solution than I had assumed, it has rewarded me with some partly surprising and unexpected insights. Without the possibility provided by the FWF fellowship to dedicate two years exclusively to this one problem, we would probably not have brought the project to a conclusion. We have been repaid for the effort by having discovered many new and unexpected ways forward and enjoying continued contact with the host institutions – with the pleasant side effect of making future visits to Barcelona or Madrid a very likely prospect.