From the outset of my studies, I became strongly interested in the so-called Casimir effect – a quantum-mechanical interaction which has an impact at macroscopic level. In nature, geckos make use of it, for instance, when they cling to glass surfaces. Since there is no group active in this area in Austria, there was no possibility for me to dig deeper into the matter for the time being. After completing a diploma thesis in numerical plasma physics and an excursion into theoretical physics which got me a doctoral degree, it was obvious to me that I had to go abroad in order to finally indulge in my passion. As the destination was of less importance to me I had a number of options. When I was accepted for the Schrödinger Fellowship the decision came easily. After all, this grant offered me the possibility to concentrate fully on research and work in an internationally renowned group. Contact with Davide Iannuzzi in Amsterdam was established through the European CASIMIR Network and its representative in Vienna at the time, Markus Arndt.
I had no problem writing my project plan since I had already collected a great number of ideas which at least partly coincided with what my host had in mind. This gave me an ambitious programme aimed at answering a few questions that had been discussed fervently in expert circles for quite some time. The main prerequisite was the development of a completely novel experiment measuring minute forces between two flat plates. They have to be kept parallel at a margin of error of less than one micro-radiant. Here is a comparison for illustration: if you were to place two bars of one kilometre in length side by side at the same level of precision, the gap between them at the far end would be less than one millimetre. Thanks to the fruitful co-operation within the team we ultimately managed to overcome all technical challenges and the first data capture session is imminent.
The Netherlands – it’s all in the name
When you drive into the Netherlands from Germany and the last hills have flattened out you have the impression of arriving on a somewhat artificially level plane. Everything – roads, clumps of trees, waterways, conurbations – seems to have been carefully arranged along a rectangular grid. There are no elevations or naturally differentiated types of landscape to be seen. In fact, the greater portion of this countryside, one of the most densely populated areas in Europe, has been shaped by human intervention. More than 17 million people live on an area one third the size of Austria. More than three quarters of this area is at or below sea level and has to be protected against flooding by continuous pumping and a complex system of canals and dikes.
Culture and people
The Netherlands, and especially Amsterdam, are remarkable in many respects. One of the most notable aspects may be traced back to Spinoza, namely the deeply entrenched tolerance and personal freedom encountered in all areas of life. In dealings with neighbours, authorities, supermarkets and in road traffic everything is calm and without unnecessary emotions, but very effective. Aggression or ruffled feathers are very rare. The Dutch value their leisure time very highly and usually spend it outdoors in creative or sports-related activities. In general, and despite the permanently wet and cold weather, life unfolds in the street in ways habitually found in more southern climes. The towns boast countless restaurants and bars that are always bustling with customers, also on weekdays. Sunshine and temperatures above 20°C are the exception, but if it happens, the city seems to turn into a big funfair and all the lawns in the city’s parks are full of people enjoying music, playing games or doing barbecues. The main means of transport is “de fiets”, the bicycle, which has priority over all other modes and in practice seems to be governed by virtually no rules. Despite the dense traffic there are hardly any accidents, since the ubiquitous cycle paths are usually structurally separated from footpaths and car lanes.
The Netherlands as place of research
Education and research rank high on the list of Dutch priorities. Even though it was always quite high, the share of university graduates in the population has been further raised by immigration from abroad thanks to tax breaks offered to highly qualified newcomers. This has resulted in a uniquely international and well educated society which provides an inspiring environment for research and commercial activities. Wide-ranging and well-endowed grant programmes make it possible for many research groups to work at a constantly high level and address undertakings that are a little more risky. With my personal project I was a clear beneficiary of these circumstances, since all expenses for material and services were covered by a co-financing scheme.
As seven nationalities are represented in my host’s group at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, it was a good opportunity for me to learn several languages and build international contacts which have helped me start a number of new international co-operation projects in the last year and a half. Completing these projects and developing the experiment from my Schrödinger Fellowship will take some more time, which is why I am not going to return to Austria in the immediate future. My family is not happy about this, of course, but thanks to an interconnected world of video-telephony and similar means of communication one is never completely absent, even if one is more than one thousand kilometres from home.