“Are there any other tricks you know which will reduce the amount of sleep I need each night, so I have more time during the day?” an old friend asks me. With only the slightest hint of a wry smile I respond: “That is not really how it works…”
You see I know this desire very well. To achieve more, work harder, be better, in the hope that I would feel good about myself. My life was about eking out every last second I could, whether in work, socially or life generally. My perpetual state of anxiety was never sustainable. I collapsed many times into depression and never learned my lesson. Eventually all I had left was work. When I continued stubbornly down the path of ‘busy’, my mind played the only hand it had left. It broke.
I learned many things to help me recover. Within this arsenal of tools, the one I valued the most was meditation.
It is the primary tool I use for introspection, to reflect on my thoughts and feelings. To think about the deep questions in life: “What am I doing? Why am I doing it?” This has been invaluable during my PhD. I have meditated on almost every single piece of work since I came back from illness, including this piece. When conscious there is too much information coming in, the product of my thoughts and ideas are always incomplete. Meditation gives the space to achieve a higher level of clarity.
I am bemused that the academic community believes the best test of a student’s academic prowess is to completely isolate them at the end of a doctorate, forcing them to write the paper which will be used to judge the efforts of the previous three years of their life under time and monetary pressures that they have likely never experienced before. I certainly could not have done it without meditation. Perhaps it is this that depresses me the most. To see an old version of myself in others, working long continuous hours in isolation, anxiety etched on their worn faces. All for the fruitless philosophy of ‘that is how it was done when I got my degree, and when my father/mother got their degree before me’. I believe students often work the way they do because that is how they have always done things, with little reflection on any deeper reasoning than “hard work never hurt anyone”. (Judging from the statistics surfacing on the deteriorating mental health of post-graduate students, this is patently untrue). This, for me now, is a confusing way to live. Even when one does complete their task, the elation is fleeting, the disbanded social connections mean there is rarely someone to celebrate with. I feel it is a horrible way to spend each day.
Since I started meditating, time has a different meaning for me. There is rarely any purpose to spending time actively worrying. Nobody can expect to ‘give 110% effort’. We cannot work more than our minds allow, in the same way a computer cannot work faster than its processor allows. This does not mean that I am never occupied by work for long periods of time, or I am never stressed or anxious. The world is complicated. If my mind does not like the task I am doing, I meditate to reflect on why I am doing it and try to find a different perspective or motivation to help. More of my time is taken up, but when I am doing something, it is purposeful and efficient. The entire process becomes valuable and fulfilling to me.
Time is precious to us, so much so that we attribute huge importance and pressure to it. We are afraid of wasting it. However, I believe the most precious time is time spent with friends and family, and time spent trying to become a wiser and better person. It is a zen philosophy that everything we do is a waste of time! After all, we cannot take our achievements with us.
So, take that extra hour of sleep. Meet with your friends, Skype with your family. Meditate for 5 minutes. It is there the time you desire is found.
When you read the word ‘Bravery’, what image pops into your mind? My bet would be something like a knight in shining armour facing off against a dragon. A hero of some sort. They would be standing tall, looking strong – running directly into danger, seemingly without a care of the fear they may be feeling.7
But I don’t think this is what bravery is.
In the ‘hero’ scenario. The individual has an emotion driving them into battle. The fight response is activated. Their ‘monkey’ brain is giving them the chemicals they need to face this fight. The picture of the hero we draw in our heads, does not (for me) describe what it means to be brave, even though the individual in that picture is potentially being brave.
My picture of bravery is entirely different.
The bravest I have ever been was when every bone in my body was telling me to sit still, to not get help, to remain isolated. Almost every thought was telling me not to open up. To stay hidden and safe. My act of bravery was to go against these feelings even though they terrified me. In order to heal I needed to get help, start meditation, arrange a counsellor and express my vulnerabilities.
Bravery I think, is having emotions driving you not to do something but consciously deciding to do it anyway. It is not triumphant nor pretty. It is not really the place of knights or heroes. The picture is of something completely different.
Maybe it is after a break-up, when you cannot fathom a life without the person you love. When you have lost your job, without an idea of where your next paycheque is coming from. When you are on your 3rd anti-depressant, simply waiting for one to work. When you are just about to step into you very first counselling session. When you have to say goodbye to someone you love more than life itself.
Bravery usually brings no medals. Others rarely notice it. They may not understand what it takes to be truly brave.
They want to see knights in shining armour.
When it is actually someone making the decision to go on living.
Written for the Science Comma blog - University of Kent
A weary PhD student approaching the end of writing my thesis, I needed to look up the original paper  of the convergent beam electron diffraction (or CBED) technique . Before I had the chance to read the usually mundane details within any such scientific publication, something immediately caught my eye. The number of citations. Only 136. I quickly looked up a recent review paper  (published in 1991) listing all of the citations where CBED had been used. Over 950. The number of citations for the original paper seemed very low for such an extensively used technique.
I looked at the authors, year and location. Two German sounding names, published in a German journal in 1939, from Danzig (now Gdansk) Poland. Alarm bells start to ring inside my head. Looking for any sort of distraction from my thesis, I decide to do some digging. I stumble across the German Wikipedia page  for Walther Kossel. A translated sentence stands out, “In November 1933 [Walther Kossel] signed the professors' confession at the German universities and colleges to Adolf Hitler” [5,6]
The alarm bells were now deafening. As a young physicist I couldn’t help but wonder: was the technique my research is based on invented by Nazis? This question needed answering, I was now gripped by the engrossing hand of history. My thesis writing had to wait for a detour into the lives of Walther Kossel and Gottfried Möllenstedt.
Kossel was born in 1888 as the son of Albrecht Kossel  (a physician who won the Nobel prize in 1910 ) and Louise Holtzmann (daughter of Indologist Adolf Holtzmann ) in Berlin. Given his academic roots it was perhaps not surprising to learn he obtained his PhD in physics from the University of Heidelberg in 1911. It is here where we discover the first hint of Nazi influence – which may have lead to his signature on the Professors confession to Hitler. His thesis advisor Philipp Lenard , while a Nobel prize winning physicist, was famously known for his anti-Semitic views. Though, they seemed to have publicly surfaced  after Kossel left Heidelberg. Whether Kossel was influenced by Lenard is unknown. One is simply left to wonder if their conversations ever strayed from their work.
Kossel assisted many of Germany’s top physicists in the 1910’s and 20’s, including a close working relationship with Arnold Sommerfeld . He made many contributions to atomic physics  during this period, before he took up a professorship at the University of Danzig in 1932.
He did so during extremely turbulent times in the free city. While Nazi occupation of Poland did not occur until 1939, Nazi influence in Poland was prevalent well before that year and especially in Danzig. Hitler saw the annexation of Danzig from Germany in 1920 as only temporary. He continually called for Danzig to be reunited with Germany  throughout the 1930’s. By 1936 Nazi party members held the majority in the city’s Senate [15,16]. This influence spread to the university too. Slowly but surely, academics of Jewish origin (or those known for their anti-Nazi views) were either dismissed or forced to retire. This included Albert Carsten , the architect behind the very first buildings of the university [18,19]. By 1936, only 38 full professors were left in the entire establishment - which included Kossel.
German-Polish tensions began to rise. A National Socialist society (Nazi society) was formed to replace all other societies (of which all students were obliged to join). The physicist Bormann , at this point an assistant to Kossel, was dismissed from the university for his refusal to join. Incidents between the two populations were increasing in severity. It seems a demonstration by one side would be met with a more severe response by the other. These escalations reached their peak in February 1939 where, according to the History of Gdansk university page , Nazi fighting squads forced Polish students out of the university. Most never returned. Very few academics seem to have spoken out during the slow takeover of the university by Nazi ideology. The ones who did, like Professors Sommer [22,23] and Krischen [24,25] were subsequently expelled.
It was under this backdrop of increasingly Nazi rule, where a young Möllenstedt was asked by Kossel to build a microscope able to produce the first CBED patterns for his PhD (he describes how he did so in a special article published in 1989 ). The paper showcasing the first CBED patterns was published in Annalen der Physik in July 1939, a mere 2 months before the occupation of Poland by Hitler (Danzig was one of the first locations to be attacked ) and the start of WWII.
With the city of Danzig now under Nazi rule, it wasn’t long until the university fully reflected Nazi policies (e.g. For entrance into the university students had to provide certificates of Aryan origin). By 1941 it seems there were no Polish students remaining at the university.
The work of Kossel and Möllenstedt continued irrespective of the war, based on the continued published works on CBED (e.g. ). It does not seem either contributed to the German war effort. Kossel appears to have been offered positions in Berlin and Strasburg, but he turned both down. From the limited evidence available it looks as if they were trying to stay out of the war. The war however, was about to come to them.
At the beginning of 1945 the Soviet troops were closing in on Danzig. Due to delays by Nazi officials in organising evacuation, the red army cut off escape to Germany by land. The only possible way out for the remaining citizens, including Möllenstedt and Kossel, was by sea. Fear was rife among the remaining German citizens due to stories of rape and pillaging by Soviet soldiers on other towns and cities. Danzig university was at this point more a hospital than a place of study. Courses were cancelled, research halted. The most important equipment, books and papers were loaded on to the escape ship SS Deutschland . Staff and their families either went with the equipment on the SS Deutschland or via the Wilhelm Gustloff . Both ships were heading to Kiel in Germany. Sadly, those who went via the Gustloff became part of the worst maritime disaster in history .
Built only to accommodate 1900 people, upwards of 10,000 people desperately packed onto the ship. The temperature outside was viscously cold, minus 18 degrees, so cold the life boats had frozen to the deck. Two of the ships accompanying the Gustloff had technical troubles and returned to Danzig, leaving only one torpedo boat. When a Soviet submarine encountered the Gustloff on the eve of January 30th, it was a sitting duck. Over 9000 people died.
Fortunately for Kossel and Möllenstedt, they decided to take the SS Deustchland. It was Möllenstedt who seemed to shoulder the responsibility over his and Kossel’s families, leaving most of their possessions behind. They became part of the east-Prussia evacuation  (or operation Hannibal) where over a period of 15 weeks, approximately 1.2 million German citizens and soldiers were evacuated to Germany or German occupied Denmark. Three times as many as Dunkirk. The SS Deutschland alone ferried over 70,000 people before it was bombed and sunken.
After their escape from Danzig into Germany, the two physicists eventually continued their research. Kossel remained in Germany for the rest of his life. Möllenstedt stayed in Germany for a while before moving to Japan.
It seems the story of CBED, of science under Nazi rule, of Kossel and Möllenstedt, is at best a lesson of inaction. It is near impossible to paint a picture where either of them would be unaware of the chaos ensuing around them. Of the near constant demonstrations against Jewish and Polish citizens during the 1930’s . Of the removal of thousands of Jewish people from the community to the concentration camp in Stutloff, a mere 22 miles away (and subsequently the last to be liberated by the Allies). The once full university common room, lying empty. Even if somehow these events were to pass both’s attention the loss of their research assistant Bormann dare not.
I have only found hints of either Kossel or Möllenstedt’s political alignments. Which has left me full of questions that will most likely never be answered. Did Kossel sign the declaration to Hitler out of fear of losing his job, or for Nazi sympathies? What would have happened if Kossel and Möllenstedt spoke out? Would CBED have been invented by someone else? Did they ever share their ideologies with each other?
Kossel remained hidden from view. I have scarcely found anything relating to his character. This has not been the same for Möllenstedt. From my time reading about his life, he seemed like a likeable, compassionate and larger than life individual . His labs seemed like an exciting place to be as a young scientist.
Therefore, it is one of the last hints Möllenstedt gave to the world which made me the most disappointed about his story. In the article he published in 1989: “My early work on convergent‐beam electron diffraction” , he mentions the war only once. He writes: “A detailed examination of the dynamical theory at high voltages, however, had to be postponed for later years or even decades because the events of the second world war set an end to the projects at Danzig”. Intended or not, this sentence gave me the impression he saw the war as getting in the way of his work. No mention of lost colleagues, of the chaos that gripped the city. Yet he did have space to mention his athletic career. At best it looks as if cognitive dissonance had taken a firm hold on Möllenstedt’s mind. Not only did he not have the bravery to speak out then, he didn’t 50 years later.
 Kossel, W. and Möllenstedt, G., 1939. Elektroneninterferenzen im konvergenten Bündel. Annalen der Physik, 428(2), pp.113-140.
 Elsevier, 2019. Convergent Beam Electron Diffraction. Elsevier, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, < https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/chemistry/convergent-beam-electron-diffraction>
 Sung, C. and Williams, D.B., 1991. Principles and applications of convergent beam electron diffraction: A bibliography (1938‐1990). Journal of electron microscopy technique, 17(1), pp.95-118.
 Wikipedia, 2019. Walther Kossel (translated). Wikipedia, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walther_Kossel>
 Wikipedia, 2019. Confession of German professors to Adolf Hitler (translated). Wikipedia, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bekenntnis_der_deutschen_Professoren_zu_Adolf_Hitler>
 Internet Archive, 2009. Commitment of professors at the universities and colleges to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist state (translated). Internet Archive, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <https://www.archive.org/stream/bekenntnisderpro00natiuoft#page/132/mode/1up>
 Wikipedia, 2019. Albrecht Kossel (translated). Wikipedia, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albrecht_Kossel>
 Nobel Media, 2019. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1910. Nobel Media, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1910/summary/>
 Wikipedia, 2019. Adolf Holtzmann (translated). Wikipedia, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_Holtzmann>
 Wikipedia, 2019. Philipp Lenard (translated). Wikipedia, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philipp_Lenard>
 Encyclopedia.com, 2019. Philipp Lenard. Encyclopedia.com, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/historians-miscellaneous-biographies/philipp-lenard>
 Wikipedia, 2019. Arnold Sommerfeld. Wikipedia, viewed 31 Oct 2019, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arnold_Sommerfeld>
 Encyclopedia.com, 2019. Walther Kossel. Encyclopedia.com, viewed 31 Oct 2019, <https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/kossel-walther-ludwig-julius-paschen-heinrich>
 Michael Fry, 2014. #tbt: Danzig and the Beginnings of World War II. National Geographic, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <https://blog.education.nationalgeographic.org/2014/08/28/tbt-danzig-and-the-beginnings-of-world-war-ii/>
 Wikipedia, 2019. Free City of Danzig. Wikipedia, viewed 31 October 2019, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_City_of_Danzig>
 Levine, H.S., 1973. Hitler's free city: a history of the Nazi Party in Danzig, 1925-39. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
 Wikipedia, 2019. Albert Carsten (translated). Wikipedia, viewed 5 November 2019, < https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Carsten>
 Waldemar A., 1998. The Silent Message of Architectural Decoration. Albert Carsten and the early 20th century buildings of the Gdansk university of technology, Poland. 6th Conference of the International Society for the Study of European Ideas, viewed 5 November 2019, < https://homepage.univie.ac.at/martin.potschka/papersISSEI1998/Affelt2.htm>
 Faculty of architecture, 2017. History of the Faculty. Gdansk university of technology, viewed 5 November 2019, < https://arch.pg.edu.pl/history-of-the-faculty>
 Wikipedia, 2018. Gerhard Borrmann. Wikipedia, viewed 5 November 2019, < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerhard_Borrmann>
 Januszajtis, A. 2012. The history of the Technical University of Gdańsk up to 1945. Gdansk university of technology, viewed 5 November 2019, < http://www.pg.gda.pl/~mjasina/pehgo2000/hist2en.html>
 Wikipedia, 2019. Julius Sommer. Wikipedia, viewed 16 November, < https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_Sommer>
 Gdansk University of Technology, 2017. Professor Julius Sommer (mathematics). Gdansk University of Technology, viewed 16 November 2019, < https://pg.edu.pl/uczelnia/rektorzy/prof-julius-sommer>
 Wikipedia, 2019. Fritz Krischen. Wikipedia, viewed 16 November, <https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_Krischen>
 Gdansk University of Technology, 2017. Professor Fritz Krischen (history of construction and art history). Gdansk University of Technology, viewed 16 November 2019, <https://pg.edu.pl/uczelnia/rektorzy/prof-fritz-krischen>
 Möllenstedt, G., 1989. My early work on convergent‐beam electron diffraction. physica status solidi (a), 116(1), pp.13-22.
 Wikipedia, 2019. Battle of Westerplatte. Wikipedia, viewed 5 November 2019, < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Westerplatte>
 Kossel, W., Ackermann, I. and Möllenstedt, G., 1943. Symmetrically excited electron interferences. Journal of Physics, 120 (7-10), pp.553-560.
 Wikipedia, 2019. SS Deutschland. Wikipedia, viewed 5 November 2019, < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Deutschland_(1923)>
 Wikipedia, 2019. MV Wilhelm Gustloff. Wikipedia, viewed 5 November 2019, < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MV_Wilhelm_Gustloff>
 Begley, S., 2016. The forgotten maritime tragedy that was 6 times deadlier than the Titanic. Time magazine, viewed 5 November 2019, <https://time.com/4198914/wilhelm-gustloff-salt-to-the-sea/>
 Wikipedia, 2019. Evacuation of east Prussia. Wikipedia, viewed 5 November 2019, < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evacuation_of_East_Prussia>
 Shindler, C., 2019. Danzig: The city where hell began and ended. The JC, viewed 5 November 2019, < https://www.thejc.com/news/news-features/danzig-the-city-where-hell-began-and-ended-1.488006>
 Tonomura, A., 1998. Prof Dr Gottfried MÖLLENSTEDT (1913–1997). Microscopy, 47(5), pp.363-364.
Image taken from: https://flic.kr/p/n4ftZZ
In 2015 I had a severe adverse reaction to an anti-depressant. Overnight I went from someone who had never experienced any physical anxiety symptoms - to major panic attacks, agoraphobia, and constant general anxiety. I no longer had the capacity to do my PhD and took temporary withdrawal for a year where I had to learn how to function as a human being again. Upon returning to my PhD, a major achievement in itself, I realised the stress of even half an hour’s worth of work rendered me not only incapable of functioning for the rest of the day, but potentially the day after too. How was I supposed to do a PhD if I couldn’t even manage half an hour? If I was to complete my PhD, I needed to figure out how to work a stress-free day. Over the course of a couple of years I learnt and refined a routine that helped me to achieve this. It wasn’t much fun and I still struggle a lot of the time. I fall out of the routine and take shortcuts. I am human after all. But I sit here with a finished thesis and time to spare. This is how I did my PhD with a broken brain.
1. Sleep, Sleep and more sleep.
I have found sleep to be the most influential factor in how stressed I am the next day. Research seems to suggest this too. Have you ever noticed how you can feel extremely agitated and stressed in the evening and the next day as fresh as a daisy? Sleep. I have yet to discover a process anywhere near as beneficial for an anxious, stressed mind.
Quality of sleep is just as important to me as its length. I have found 8-9 hours of bad sleep almost as detrimental as 6 hours of good sleep. I try to be in bed by around 8 – 9pm with the aim to get up from 6am-7am. A couple of hours before I will clip on my special blue-light filter lenses (I realised a blue light filter on your phone is useless if you spend your entire evening bathed in artificial lights!). Just before I set off to sleep, I will write and reflect on things that happened that day as well as any problems I needed to address the next day. I found a clear mind is essential to get to sleep promptly relaxed enough to get to sleep promptly.
To stay comfortable during sleep, I set up a fan next to my bed (which goes on most of the night to keep me cool), Earplugs to block out the noise of the fan, I play soothing music (high volume) with a sleep timer and I have blackout curtains and a plug-in air freshener on a timed schedule throughout the night. All these things are in place to associate the process of sleeping as a relaxing experience.
To wake up, I use a sleep tracking app which attempts to track when I am in my lightest sleep phase and slowly increases the brightness of my bedroom smart bulb to simulate a sunrise. It is a much more pleasant way to wake up to than a blaring alarm during an inappropriate sleep phase.
I think meditation is one of the most underrated skill sets to possess in the modern world. Meditation is an incredibly flexible skill. How I use it depends entirely on how I am feeling. For the most part it calms me down while at the same time providing me an avenue to explore current and future stressors.
It can also be used an escape. We all come across unavoidable stressors in life. For me this was the bus ride into work. I had nothing to do, trapped with a bunch of stressed students. During this time, I listen to an audiobook while meditating (I just look like I am taking a nap), bringing it more to life on a bus ride, thus taking me out of the stressful environment.
I meditated frequently throughout the day. I did so underneath my desk with a pillow as there was nowhere really within the physics building to lie down without getting told off. It ahas been essential in improving the quality of my work. Meditation had some influence in every single idea or solution I came up with during my PhD.
I have saved the most important facet for last. I don’t think I’ve met anyone else who thinks about stress avoidance and management as much as I do. One of the many frustrations I have in life is others not realising just how much thought and care goes into the simplest of things, which then allows me to function. For me, there is no such thing as a holiday.
Having the support of others is therefore invaluable. I went home every month to my mum to get the love and compassion which can sometimes go missing in an academic environment. During difficult moments, something as simple as a hand on a shoulder goes a long way to communicate another is there for you. Indeed, it may be the difference between someone continuing on in their studies, or leaving them.
I have moved my more personal posts to a separate blog. For access please email me or subscribe on the right.
It is a goal of mine to write about things that have influenced my life, and to do so in a way that is personal. It is one of the many ways I am trying to find others with similar ideas out there, hiding in plain sight, wanting to connect.
I have spent a long time in the world of a researcher and never really felt like I belonged there. In academia it is very easy to isolate yourself in your research - pretend like the rest of the world doesn't exist. Something I did to myself for many years. The following is about how counselling helped me out of my isolationist philosophy. I wrote this article for the Thesis Whisperer
... it doesn't exist.
One in four people will suffer a mental health problem/illness/issue at some point in their life/the past week/the past year (delete as appropriate) is a statistic seen all over any type of mental health media. It has never sat well with me. Mostly because I always think if an individual is unsure about their current state of mental health, it is easy to read that statistic and be reassured that 75 percent of people will never have a mental health problem... ever. And go ahead and place themselves in that 75 percent 'I'm going to be alright' bracket.
I'm not sure mental health problems work that way. For instance, if I were to say to you 1 in 4 people will suffer a physical health problem at some point in their life, you would look at me like a crazy person. It is quite clearly 100 percent unless anyone has figured out how to 'cure' mortality - or vampires exist, one of the two. We all get colds, and suffer from the various physical problems caused by ageing. There is a spectrum of severity here, but all are bannered underneath physical health nonetheless. Why are mental health problems treated any differently?
Probably the first thing to mention is I can't draw... yet. So it took a little bit of trickery to make it look like I could - I'll show how later!
To make the video I used Adobe Premiere Pro. I don't have much experience with this software or any video editing software in fact, but I work with images a lot for my PhD so have plenty of experience with Premiere Pro's compatriots: Photoshop and Illustrator. I mainly use them for my final scientific figures, in terms of style and making images look good I have found that nothing really compares to Adobe's software, both in ease of use, and versatility. Hence probably why it is so widely used! I found Premiere Pro just as easy and intuitive to use (with the help of a few youtube videos).
Since there are tons of youtube guides on using Prem Pro, and really my trailer is just a series of 25-30 images total in a 1min video - I shall focus on how I seemingly made artistic images with the most meagre of drawing ability.